Unions Under Siege in Guatemala

Michelle Chen

Melvy Lizeth Camey Rojas, Secretary General of the SNTSG Santa Rosa Dept, shows the scars of the bullet wounds she suffered in an assassination attempt in August 2012 at her union office. (Photo from Public Services International)

Guatemala is begin­ning to emerge from a grim his­to­ry of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship and civ­il strife, but its work­ers remain mired in the nation’s bloody lega­cy. Even today, as the coun­try hob­bles toward democ­ra­cy and seeks jus­tice for past atroc­i­ties, trade union­ists are still a tar­get of vio­lence, with many killings hid­den under a cloud of gov­ern­ment impunity.

In 2011 and 2012, there were a string of mur­ders of mem­bers of the banana work­ers union, SITRA­BI. Over­all, 64 trade union­ists have been mur­dered in Guatemala since 2007 and hun­dreds have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly ter­ror­ized. And the vast major­i­ty of such crimes are nev­er pros­e­cut­ed, let alone pun­ished. Activists believe that union­ists are tar­get­ed because they rep­re­sent work­ers’ inter­ests, which puts them this puts them at odds with pow­er­ful cor­po­rate and state institutions.

Fol­low­ing nego­ti­a­tions with the Inter­na­tion­al Labour Orga­ni­za­tion and Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tion, the Guatemalan gov­ern­ment reached an agree­ment ear­li­er this year to coop­er­ate with ILO mon­i­tors to address anti-union vio­lence and strength­en labor pro­tec­tions. But the blood­shed has not let up.

In a new report, Pub­lic Ser­vices Inter­na­tion­al, a glob­al labor fed­er­a­tion rep­re­sent­ing pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers, recounts vicious attacks on fel­low unionists:

In March 2013, three mem­bers of PSI affil­i­ate unions were mur­dered just days after an ILO mis­sion vis­it­ed Guatemala to assess the sit­u­a­tion of free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion. On March 8, 2013, Car­los Her­nan­dez, exec­u­tive mem­ber of the Sindi­ca­to Nacional de Tra­ba­jadores de Salud de Guatemala (SNTSG) and leader in sev­er­al peas­ant orga­ni­za­tions, was shot dead by two men car­ry­ing 9mm firearms on motor­cy­cles. San­ta Alvara­do, also a mem­ber of the SNTSG, was kid­napped on March 21 after fin­ish­ing work in the kitchens at the nation­al hos­pi­tal in Toton­i­capán. She was lat­er found stran­gled. Kira Zulue­ta Enriquez Mena, Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary of the Sindi­ca­to de Tra­ba­jadores Munic­i­pales de Nue­va Con­cep­ción in the depart­ment of Escuint­la, was assas­si­nat­ed on March 22 at the library where she worked.

While the cul­prits may be hid­den, union­ists say these are not sin­gu­lar inci­dents of crim­i­nal­i­ty. Labor advo­cates see the killings as a byprod­uct of deep gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion linked to both drug traf­fick­ing and the busi­ness world. The unions’ posi­tion as work­ers’ rep­re­sen­ta­tives, they say, makes them a threat to cor­rupt enter­pris­es and offi­cials, leav­ing them exposed to killings by hired criminals.

Speak­ing to In These Times through an inter­preter, Luis Anto­nio Alpirez Guzmán, sec­re­tary of dis­pute res­o­lu­tion with the health work­er’ union SNTSG, which has report­ed sev­er­al mem­bers assas­si­nat­ed in recent years, says local activists believe gov­ern­ment offi­cials are not order­ing the assas­si­na­tions, but they are not doing any­thing to avoid them. And they are not tak­ing prop­er action to inves­ti­gate these assas­si­na­tions. There­fore the gov­ern­ment is con­sid­ered an accomplice.”

Local and inter­na­tion­al labor groups are some of the few civ­il soci­ety voic­es mobi­liz­ing to demand action amidst the offi­cial silence. Last week, an inter­na­tion­al del­e­ga­tion of labor activists trav­eled to Guatemala to demand full inves­ti­ga­tions of recent mur­ders of trade union­ists and pres­sure the Guatemalan gov­ern­ment to pros­e­cute the crimes. The del­e­ga­tion was coor­di­nat­ed by PSI and includ­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives from affil­i­ate unions in Europe, Latin Amer­i­ca and the Unit­ed States. PSI Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary Rosa Pavenel­li says via email that a his­tor­i­cal anti-union feel­ing” is present in some sec­tors of the gov­ern­ment as well. As such, a cli­mate of impuni­ty and fear exists.”

The PSI del­e­ga­tion has called on Guatemala’s wealthy trade part­ners to sus­pend com­mer­cial ties in response to the human rights cri­sis. In par­tic­u­lar, they want Euro­pean gov­ern­ments to sus­pend a key pro­gram that facil­i­tates trade between the two regions, the Euro­pean Union Cen­tral Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion Agree­ment (EU-CAAA), which gives trade pref­er­ences to Guatemalan businesses.

Inter­na­tion­al trade deals are often pro­mot­ed as a way to improve eco­nom­ic and social sta­bil­i­ty. The DR-CAF­TA, a trade deal aimed at pro­mot­ing region­al eco­nom­ic inte­gra­tion,” includes a Labor Chap­ter that sup­pos­ed­ly grants abused work­ers a means of legal redress. In 2008, sev­er­al Guatemalan labor unions worked with the AFL-CIO to file com­plaints under the Labor Chap­ter. The U.S. agreed to act as an arbiter to address the com­plaints. But accord­ing to PSI’s analy­sis of the nego­ti­a­tions, the gov­ern­ment of Guatemala refused to par­tic­i­pate in arbi­tra­tion and raised claims of pro­ce­dur­al errors.” The U.S. has since worked out an enforce­ment plan with the gov­ern­ment, and imple­men­ta­tion is expect­ed in the com­ing months.

But if past is pro­logue, activists are right to be skep­ti­cal that out­side pres­sure will lead to domes­tic accou­tabil­i­ty. Trade deals have his­tor­i­cal­ly proven more of an imped­i­ment to progress than an impe­tus. In sev­er­al neolib­er­al accords bro­kered by Wash­ing­ton, such as trade pacts with Mex­i­co, Jor­dan, and Colom­bia, labor groups have crit­i­cized the labor pro­vi­sions as tooth­less and, in light of the per­sis­tence of rights abus­es under free trade,” too weak to encour­age real reform or raise stan­dards. Guatemala has evolved over the past cen­tu­ry from a colo­nial out­post to a proxy bat­tle­ground for Cold War pow­er strug­gles, with a mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship tutored and sup­plied by Wash­ing­ton. The social upheavals of ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions left gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tions and civ­il soci­ety deeply dam­aged. The coun­try is just now embark­ing on a process of jus­tice and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion for vic­tims (though the U.S. gov­ern­men­t’s role in past atroc­i­ties still awaits a full pub­lic airing).

Yet the per­sis­tence of anti-trade union vio­lence sug­gests that, who­ev­er is direct­ly respon­si­ble for the killings, the state and econ­o­my still active­ly ben­e­fit from the dis­en­fran­chise­ment of work­ers and civ­il soci­ety. Mur­der is just one extreme exam­ple of the country’s many labor crises. Human rights observers and local and inter­na­tion­al labor groups have exten­sive­ly doc­u­ment­ed issues of exploita­tive work­ing con­di­tions, child labor, gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion and union-bust­ing campaigns.

In addi­tion to demand­ing account­abil­i­ty for anti-union vio­lence, PSI has also urged strength­en­ing of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing process­es and oth­er labor reg­u­la­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly for pub­lic sec­tor work­ers, whose rights are threat­ened by cor­rup­tion and a trend of pri­va­ti­zat­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vices. And for all of Guatemala’s work­ers, who suf­fer from intense pover­ty and most­ly work in the infor­mal sec­tor, the inter­na­tion­al union del­e­ga­tion crit­i­cized the wide­spread use of out­sourc­ing and short-term con­tracts,” which exac­er­bate eco­nom­ic insta­bil­i­ty and lead to fur­ther inequal­i­ties in the work­place and in society.”

To solid­i­fy inter­na­tion­al action on labor strife in Guatemala, the SNTSG has called for a labor rights obser­va­to­ry, build­ing on ILO ini­tia­tives to pro­vide sus­tained inves­ti­ga­tions and on-the-ground mon­i­tor­ing of anti-work­er vio­lence and repression.

Alvirez warned that if the blood­shed con­tin­ues, the entire labor move­ment will be irrev­o­ca­bly weak­ened. When­ev­er a trade union leader is killed it has a big impact on the union,” he says, because it cre­ates instability.”

And unions, when­ev­er they lose one or two mem­bers, of course have to focus atten­tion and their time and ener­gy on help­ing fam­i­ly of this per­sons who have been killed, on imme­di­ate issues, instead of con­tin­u­ing with their fight,” he explains. The sit­u­a­tion is rem­i­nis­cent of the chaot­ic 1980s and 1990s era, when stu­dent and labor activists were mur­dered on a mass scale, he says. It was a very, very vio­lent time… And we have the impres­sion that we are going back to this peri­od, and that the gov­ern­ment wants to shut us off.”

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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