Strikes across Bolivia in Evo Morales’ first showdown with labor

Strikes and protests against the Bolivian government’s wage hike offers this week marked a break by organized labor with the leftist government of President Evo Morales. An indefinite strike was called May 5 by the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the country’s largest union federation, to press the government on its offer of a 5% wage increase. As the strike kicked off, police arrested 17 in La Paz, where protesting workers attacked the main entrance to the Labor Ministry with dynamite. Three were reported injured in the clash. The strike was honored across the country, with factory workers, rural teachers, public health workers, miners and other sectors walking off the job, and marching peacefully in many towns and cities.

COB is rejecting the government’s offer of a 5% wage hike—the lowest since Morales became president—while police are similarly spurning the offer of 3% for the national police and armed forces. The government points out that it has also raised the national minimum wage by 5% to 679 bolivianos ($96) a month, 32 bolivianos higher than in 2009. Economy and Finance Minister Luis Arce defended the wage increase, arguing that it is well above the 2009 inflation rate. The COB wants wage increases of up to 26% to offset the hike in food prices.

Currently, Morales is at the United Nations in New York to deliver the demands of the recently concluded Cochabamba summit on climate change. At a press conference in the Government Palace in La Paz between his visits to New York and Argentina, Morales said, “This president will never take measures against workers, but workers also have to be rational for the sake of the country.” He also questioned the motive of workers: “Some sectors [of labor] appear to be infiltrated by the right that wants to confuse the workers.”

As the strike began, Standard & Poor’s raised Bolivia’s debt ratings to B from B- and said the country’s outlook is positive. “The positive outlook reflects the country’s resilient economy and prudent fiscal policy,” S&P said in the statement. (Latino Business Review, May 7; IPS, Monthly Review, Bloomberg, May 6; LAHT, Los Tiempos, Cochabamba, May 5)

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  1. Bolivia: agreement with labor union fails to halt protests
    On May 11, workers started a march near Oruro heading toward La Paz, protesting the Bolivian government’s decision to grant a 5% wage increase without option for negotiation. (Last year, the Morales administration granted the same workers a 12% increase preceding national elections, creating high expectations for 2010.) Two days later in Panduro, the Bolivian Workers Union (COB) and the central government negotiated and signed an agreement, which met with mixed reviews from different COB affiliates. Internal differences and conflicts have long characterized COB politics.

    The agreement stipulates a reduced retirement age for Bolivian workers, from 60 to 58 years. Average life expectancy in Bolivia is approximately 65 years. The accord sets a lower limit of 56 for miners who tend to die younger, and 51 for deep miners, who face even greater health hazards. The accord also set proportional salary increases, awarding a greater percentage to lower paid workers. Workers who earn more than 1,000 bolivianos (about $US 145) per month will receive an increase of 3%, and those who earn below that margin gain 8%. In a speech at a Cochabamba school on May 13, President Morales recognized the challenge of negotiating with different groups, stating: “We will never be able to satisfy everyone.”

    Members of the factory workers’ union claim that COB leadership excluded them from the talks and consequently reject the accord. The factory workers plan to continue an indefinite labor strike, organize a march to demand a 12% wage increase, and possibly apply other measures such as hunger strikes.

    The teachers’ union also opposes the agreement. The leader of this group, Vilma Plata, affirmed, “We reject the agreement the COB signed with the government, so, we will continue to pressure and strike indefinitely.” The Ministry of Education announced on May 13 that it will sanction public school officials who choose to strike. Approximately 20 schools closed their doors in solidarity with the teachers’ strike. “These institutions will be sanctioned and the teachers will face withdrawals from their pay,” stated Ivan Villa Bernal, the Vice Minister of Education. (Andean Information Network, May 19)