Latin America: May 1 demonstrations focus on minimum wage

Many of the traditional celebrations of International Workers Day on May 1 this year had the minimum wage as a central theme—in some cases because governments marked the occasion by increasing wages, in other cases because the governments refused to do so. Between 40,000 and 100,000 Chileans marched in Santiago on May 1 in a demonstration organized by the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT) and bringing together unionists and protesters from the student movement. CUT president Arturo Martínez called for “a real minimum wage, which this year should reach 250,000 pesos” a month (about $520). According to Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei this “isn’t possible”; she claimed it would cause an increase in unemployment. As frequently happens in Chile, violence broke out at the end of the peaceful protest: some 200 hooded youths threw rocks at police agents, journalists and other demonstrators. Six agents from the carabineros militarized police were reportedly injured and some 20 people were arrested.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil‘s industrial center, unionists marched for a 40-hour week and for lower rates of interest on loans; labor leaders claimed a victory in center-left president Dilma Rousseff’s call the day before for banks to make credit more accessible. The Força Sindical labor confederation claimed that one million people participated in the day’s events. In Sao Luís in the northeastern state of Maranhao, unionists protested the murder of journalist Décio Sa, the fourth reporter to be killed in Brazil this year. (EFE, May 1, via Diario Libre, Dominican Republic; La Jornada, Mexico, May 2, from AFP, DPA, PL, Xinhua, Notimex, correspondent)

In Bolivia President Evo Morales marked May 1 by renationalizing the country’s main electric grid, which was privatized in 1997. Morales promised to work out a compensation arrangement within 180 days with the current owner, Empresa Transportadora de Electricidad, a subsidiary of the Spanish company Red Eléctrica de España, S.A. The Spanish government was clearly upset by the takeover, which followed just two weeks after the Argentine government announced its plan to renationalize the oil company YPF SA from Spain’s Repsol. Morales’ move “is sending a negative message that generates distrust,” Spanish ambassador Ramon Santos told reporters. Ironically, the power grid was already partially nationalized—to the Spanish government, which owns 20% of Red Eléctrica de España.

Morales has used May Day for similar announcements in the past: he started the process of nationalizing the oil and gas sector on May 1 in 2006, and in 2008 he chose May 1 to announce that the privatization of the main phone company, Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (Entel), had been completed. (AP, May 1, via El Paso [Texas] Times; Adital, Brazil, May 2)

Peru‘s president Ollanta Humala and Venezuela‘s Hugo Chávez both announced raises in the monthly minimum wage on May 1—from 675 soles ($253.70) to 750 soles ($281.90) in Peru and from 1,548.22 bolívares ($360) to 2,047 bolívares ($476) in Venezuela. Chávez’s government also reduced the work week from 44 hours to 40 hours, while Humala promised to fight against child labor and the disparity in wages between men and women.

In Colombia, Tarsicio Mora, president of the Unitary Workers Central (CUT), charged that six unionists have been murdered so far this year and that the number has reached 3,000 for the past 15 years, making “Colombia the most dangerous country for carrying out union activities.” Some 64 people were arrested in Bogotá for carrying objects that the authorities said might be used to disrupt the official ceremony, at which President Juan Manuel Santos signed a decree regulating teletrabajo (work outside the office via telecommunications) and expressed sorrow that the killing of unionists was continuing. (EFE, May 1, via Diario Libre; LJ, May 2, from AFP, DPA, PL, Xinhua, Notimex, correspondent)

Hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers marched in Havana on May 1, along with a total of 1,700 unionists from 117 other countries, but the demonstration was unusually short, just one hour. The ceremony included an announcement by Salvador Valdés, head of the Cuban Workers’ Confederation (CTC), that there will be no increase in wages until the country has managed to eliminate subsidies and reduce public sector employment. Until now the trend has been to link wages to productivity. In 2010 the government reported a a 4.2% increase in productivity and a 4.4% increase in the median wage; in 2011, the increase in productivity was 2.8% and the wage increase was 2.7%.

The austerity measure is in line with a radical economic restructuring plan, announced in September 2010, to eliminate 500,000 jobs in state enterprises while building up the private sector. The CTC said that 140,000 public sector jobs were eliminated in 2011, somewhat short of the goal of 170,000 layoffs for the year. According to the Labor and Social Security Minister, as of February the country had 371,200 micro-enterprises; the government hopes they will absorb the laid-off state employees. (LJ, May 2, from correspondent)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 6.

See our last post on this year’s May Day mobilization.