Editorial: Revolution and repression – trade unionism in Latin America

IUR’s board have long agreed with the idea to bring together the stories of labour from the Latin American region, but the late 2010s didn’t seem like the right time; as Alex Praça observes, “left wing governments [had] started to fall one by one”. But it has been remarkable to see what Praça calls “the return of the left” over the last two or three years, as numerous countries have again – or even for the first time – turned leftwards.

And so it is with some optimism that we open this edition. There is a sense of it in Monica Tepfer’s contribution, which investigates the enthusiastic take-up of the ILO’s supervisory mechanisms by trade unions from the Latin American region. This powerful engagement with international supervisory systems, Tepfer suggests, might go some way towards enabling “the dream of a more egalitarian region”. But progressive dreams have not in all cases gone entirely to plan. Chile is a country that had a strong progressive tendency in the 1970s, crushed for many years by dictatorship, but now free and once again under a radical, left-wing leadership. Joshua Stern investigates why, then, the country recently voted against a progressive new Constitution. Recognising that it may still take “years” for the labour movement to fully recover, Stern nonetheless sees hope, revealing that in areas where the Communists have rebuilt strong working class structures, voters supported the proposed changes.

Like Tepfer, Peru’s Gianina Echevarría and Giovanna Larco investigate the trade union legal background. They find evidence of progress these past two years, but overall a downward trajectory that has pushed unions out of many workers’ lives in a process still unfolding from the “flexible” labour code of the 1990s. Men, in construction and mining, they observe, still have powerful unions, but that situation is not reflected for all workers, or throughout the economy.

For any trade unionist observing the Latin American region over recent years, two countries stand out as sites of extreme human rights emergencies, and these are Colombia and Guatemala, where the rates of the most serious violations against trade unionists, and terrible impunity for those crimes, have been appallingly high. Colombia’s CUT Omar Romero Díaz walks us through the political background to conflict, anti-union attacks, the peace process, and finally “hope for a new progressive social government”. There are strong echoes of the history he presents in the piece shared by UNSITRAGUA’s Julio Coj. Both share a strong sense that it is a long history of struggle and repression that has built the reality that their labour movements inhabit today, but sadly for Guatemala as yet few signs of progressive change “Today there is exploitation by the agro-industry business community, by “maquiladora” companies, by municipal mayors … and the total inaction of the administrative and judicial authorities”, reports Coj.

One country in the region that has trodden its own path for more than 60 years, is Cuba. Steve Cottingham and Adrian Weir of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign talk us through some of the country’s strengths and successes, and the challenges wrought by profound economic stress and the continuing economic blockade maintained for decades by its powerful neighbour, the US. Cuba built a massive trade union movement, and its history stands out as quite distinct from the terrible violence reported against trade unionists in so many of its neighbours. But not all “modernising” political projects in the region have found easy alliances with the labour movement, and we close this edition with an overview of the turbulent history that has shaped trade unionism in the region, from colonialism and slavery, through agrarian conservatism, to corporatism and communism, American interference, the Cold War, military dictatorships, civil conflict, and finally, in the 21st Century, a remarkable sense that the political left is at last fully in the ascendancy, and with many former trade unionists, like Brazilian President Lula, at the helm.

Daniel Blackburn, Editor

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Will the new Latin America
pink tide provide
a viable alternative for workers?
Alex Praça

The Working-Class Votes “No” in the Chilean Constitutional Referendum? – Perhaps Chilean Labour History Has Some Answers
Joshua Stern

The impact of the ILO Supervisory System on the achievement of labour rights and the promotion of social dialogue in the Latin American region
Monica V Tepfer

Trade union rights in Peru
Gianina Echevarría & Giovanna Larco

The Labour Situation in Colombia and Human Rights
Omar Romero Díaz

Worldwide: Trade union global history, ILO World of Work Monitor, ITUC Congress, Europe / TU legal, ILO Conflicts and Disasters Manual, Pakistan, China: legal rights protection, China: Human Rights at the UN, EU Forced labour law, ILO Social Dialogue Report, WFTU Congress Report, Business and Human Rights, Public Services

The Trade Union and Labour Situation in Guatemala
Julio Coj

Trade Unions in Cuba
Steve Cottingham & Adrian Weir

Revolution and Repression: A Century of Struggle for the Heart and Soul of Latin American Trade Unionism
Daniel Blackburn

Worldwide Cost of living, strike restrictions & ILO rules

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The International Centre for Trade Union Rights

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