Date: Wed, 23 Dec 1998 22:28:04 -0600 (CST)
From: Michael Eisenscher <>
Article: 50777
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
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Uruguay's unions undergoing lean times

IPS, 17 December 1998

MONTEVIDEO, (Dec. 17) IPS—Trade unions in Uruguay are now going through their worst crisis ever, having lost ground in recent years. Their membership has shrunk and the clout they once had has diminished drastically.

The country's sole labor federation, the PIT-CNT, has lost nearly 80 percent of its members in the last three years, and its power to negotiate and exert pressure has fallen drastically. Unions affiliated to it have suffered in much the same way.

The clearest example of this was a plebiscite conducted in late November by the union representing employees of the Uruguayan Tire Factory (FUNSA), bought out recently by the U.S. multinational corporation Titan.

After the factory laid off many of its workers, the FUNSA union called a meeting of its members to get their support for actions to resist the layoffs, including a strike in defense of our dismissed co-workers.

However, most of the workers were against the proposed action.

That this had happened at FUNSA is significant because, before the 1973-1985 military dictatorship in Uruguay, its union was very combative and, as a result, its leaders were persecuted and jailed by the military.

One of them, Leon Duarte, appears on a list of Uruguayans who disappeared in Argentina. Another, Nelson Santana, was kidnapped in Paraguay during the course of Operation Condor—organized by the dictators of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay—and met the same fate as Duarte.

Before the dictatorship, the powerful National Convention of Workers (CNT) was controlled by the Communist Party. The military regime dissolved it, but in its last years, the unions regrouped and created the Inter-Union Plenary of Workers (PIT, later PIT- CNT).

With the fall of communism in 1989, the PIT-CNT started to decline in addition to suffering from a lack of coherent direction. Its affiliates now number 120,000, about an eighth of an economically active population of just over one million.

There are 3.1 million people in Uruguay.

The union movement here is split in three: one faction comprises socialists, ex-communists and leftist independents, another is made up of radical leftists and the third of orthodox communists.

What type of awareness are we talking about when workers are no longer the homogenous force of 30 years ago? the Association of Uruguayan Bank Employees (AEBU) wondered in its official magazine.

Today fear of dismissal has become apathy...and management knows it, added AEBU, the strongest union in the country.

In late November, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) charged that some multinationals were pressuring their Uruguayan workers to avoid union affiliation.

A PIT-CNT spokesperson told IPS that many workers affiliated with the federation had not received wage increases or other financial incentives, while non-unionized workers were subjected to economic blackmail by their employers.

ICFTU showed concrete evidence that Lloyd's Bank engaged in such practices, but the union spokesperson said it was not the only one union-busting. Another, he said, was the French firm Gaz de France, which owns Gaseba, a gas utility in Montevideo. However, the Labor Ministry has been unable to prove anti-union activities by Gaseba or other companies.

For AEBU, the contradiction between labor and capital has not been eliminated in the new world order, but only reformulated and, in some cases, camouflaged with the help of the disarray and lack of ideological direction that many now suffer.

The bank employees called on workers to take up the old banners of the Chicago militants, (early U.S. workers rights activists) which are celebrated every year on May 1, International Labor Day.

They represent the virtues of humility and principle, wisdom and pragmatism, compromise and solidarity, because a new legitimacy can be found by affirming the old roots, added AEBU, whose leadership is dominated by socialists, ex-communists and independent leftists.

Equipos Consultores, a private pollster, revealed in an opinion poll that Uruguayan unions' popularity is at its lowest level in a decade.

Just 23 percent of Uruguayans interviewed by Equipos Consultores were sympathetic towards the unions and almost half (47 percent) expressed animosity toward them. Twenty-one percent had no opinion.

In 1988, three years after the return of democracy, four out of 10 Uruguayans were sympathetic to unions, compared to one in three who expressed hostility.

The following year, the popularity of trade union groups fell to 38 percent, and in 1990 they suffered their worst drop, to around 30 percent, while sympathy toward the unions continues to fall.