General strike challenges Bolivian Government
On Tuesday May 4, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB; Bolivian Workers’ Centre), the chief union federation in Bolivia, launched an indefinite general strike against Evo Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) government.
Traditionally, the Bolivian government has increased wages on May Day. This year, the government capped private sector wage rises at 5 per cent. The move was met with disappointment and anger from many sections of the working class.
Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America. The Centre for Labour and Agrarian Development Studies (CEDLA) has compiled statistics taking into account changes in purchasing power.
Based on these numbers, between 2006 and 2009 the average real increase in the minimum wage was barely 1.4 per cent, and the government proposal of a nominal increase of 5 per cent in the minimum wage in 2010 means a real average annual increase of only 2.3 per cent.
But there is more to it than wages. Guido Midma, the executive secretary of the Bolivian miners’ union federation, explained:
“No changes have occurred in the last four years. The promised revival of production has not happened… new jobs have not been created in the natural gas, mining, agriculture or forestry industries. We cannot remain silent. The wage increase is miserable, even more so when the government is siding with the business community at a time when international mineral prices are on the rise. The government is forcing workers into exploitation and slavery.”
Morales’ plea that workers’ be “rational and responsible for the country” was flatly ignored as demonstrations were held around the country, accompanied by a 24-hour general strike which was then extended indefinitely.
The leaders of some unions have initiated hunger strikes in protest. The militant manufacturing and mining workers who have led the strike set up roadblocks. Additionally, the strike has been supported by public health workers and teachers – all of whom are pressing for wage increases between 13 per cent and 26 per cent.
Morales responded by arguing that workers would have to wait for wages to go up gradually and that “This is the way to try to achieve equality among Bolivians. It can’t be done in one fell swoop. That’s impossible. The Treasury can’t do that.”
Echoing neoliberal logic, Morales continued: “While we have begun to improve, I feel as though certain compañeros want everything for their salaries. We have to invest in Bolivia – only by investing can we create more jobs.”
Morales’ Vice-Prime Minister Gustavo Torrico went further, telling the workers that they would have to get used to living on “rations of bread and coffee”. According to the Bolivian paper La Razon, President Morales is currently under the protection of the police and military.
As the strike approached the end of its first week, Morales accused the strikers of being infiltrated by right-wing groups and the US embassy.
Morales’ words and actions are a clear example of the logic of reformism; the logic of attempting to reform a capitalist state. He is constrained by the needs of a capitalist economy, and as such, has moved against the working class.
On the other hand, the COB, founded during the revolution of 1952, is exemplary of the radical traditions of the Bolivian working class. Its Political Thesis, penned in 1970, opens by saying:
“We workers proclaim that our historic mission in the present moment is to crush imperialism and its native servants. We proclaim that our mission is the struggle for socialism. We proclaim that the proletariat is the revolutionary nucleus par excellence amongst working Bolivians…”
Since Morales was sworn in to the Presidency in 2006, however, the COB leadership has been very close to the government. The socialist leader of the Urban Teachers’ Union, Vilma Plata, described COB leader Pedro Montes as a “sort of a subaltern Evo Morales, only defending the interests of the President and not the workers.”
This makes the current strike all the more significant. It represents the first large-scale action of workers in opposition to the Morales government, and it represents a setback for the pro-Morales section of the COB leadership.
The government, desperate to end the strike that is now well into its second week, has signed an agreement with Pedro Montes. Montes, for his part, was delighted to go against the wishes of his union’s members. His fraudulent accord has been resolutely rejected by the strikers.
A number of union leaders, including leaders of the manufacturing and mining sections and the teachers’ union, have called for Montes to step aside. Steps have been taken towards the convocation of a COB conference that could put a new, more pro-working class leadership in place.
As of May 13, the COB is still in talks with the government – but the key question of wage rises has not been resolved. The rhetoric of Morales and his government has become even shriller – they have alternately tried to deny that the strike exists and accused the strikers of sabotaging Bolivia’s “progress”. Yet the strike continues.
This article, by Daniel Lopez, first appeared online in Socialist Alternative.