Date: Mon, 6 Jul 98 11:40:36 CDT
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Construction workers protest
Weekly News Update on the Americas, issue #440, 5 July 1998
Members of Panama's Only Union of Construction and Similar Workers (SUNTRACS) clashed with police at several demonstrations during the week of June 22. SUNTRACS is demanding ratification of a 112-point collective bargaining agreement with the Panamanian Chamber of Construction (CAPAC); after five months of negotiations, 22 of the points remain unsettled, including a 50 cent per hour pay raise and wage parity between construction workers in the capital and in the rest of the country. CAPAC is offering a 3 cent an hour increase, and refuses parity.
On June 23 thousands of construction workers marched through the streets of Panama City to the CAPAC headquarters to press their demands. CAPAC evacuated the building an hour before the protesters arrived. Violence broke out earlier in the day when 50 anti-riot police agents used tear gas to disperse about 100 workers who were blocking an avenue north of Panama City. Some protesters threw rocks. Five police agents were hurt; two protesters were arrested but were released without being charged.
The next day, June 24, 21 police agents were hurt and 37 workers were arrested in a similar clash when SUNTRACS members threw rocks and bottles at some 200 anti-riot agents, who used tear gas and birdshot to try to disperse protesters from blocking a highway. The detainees were sentenced by a night judge to an uncommutable 10-day imprisonment and were taken to La Joya jail. According to SUNTRACS leader Genaro Lopez, some of the arrests occurred when police anti-riot agents entered a construction project and used tear gas and birdshot to attack workers there who were not even taking part in the street protests.
Minister of Government and Justice Raul Montenegro Diviazo criticized the protests and called SUNTRACS members "street guerrillas." On June 25 SUNTRACS leader Lopez announced a truce until July 6 so that negotiations can proceed, but conditioned the truce on the release of the 37 imprisoned workers. On July 1, Panamanian president Ernesto Perez Balladares insisted that the imprisoned workers will not be freed until they serve their full sentence. Lopez and other SUNTRACS leaders continue to warn that if the pending contract points are not resolved soon, the union will step up the pressure with more marches, partial strikes and work slowdowns.
The 25,000-member SUNTRACS is considered Panama's most militant trade union, and its leadership has been outspoken against the government's pro-International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies. Construction workers in Panama earn $2.72 an hour in the capital and $2.20 elsewhere in the country. [El Panama America (Panama) 6/25/98; El Siglo (Panama) 6/26/98, 6/24/98; La Prensa (Panama) 7/2/98; La Nacion (Costa Rica) 6/24/98 from AFP; El Diario-La Prensa (NY) 6/25/98 from AFP] The 37 imprisoned workers (or 32 according to El Siglo) were released early on July 3. [LP 7/4/98; ES 7/4/98]
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