Workers in the whole world take a break today to commemorate the martyrs of Chicago, a group of workers who were chastised for their libertarian ideas and unjustly hanged at the end of the nineteenth century. The popular struggles at that time – fair wages, eight-hour days, healthy working conditions, among others – are still relevant today.
In the case of Panama, in the final run-up to the elections, the first of May 2014 sees a big union and two associations of educators on strike and protesting in the streets. Construction workers and teachers’ groups are keeping up the pressure with actions that began last week. The workers and management are five clauses away from an agreement to put an end to a work stoppage that affects some 400 projects. Teachers, for their part, continue with actions demanding an unconditional increase of 300 dollars per month.
Businessmen and international speculators celebrate economic growth in Panama over the past decade. Nevertheless, they appear to be disregarding that workers have not benefited from this growth. 90 per cent of the increase has gone to property-owners and speculators. On the other hand, workers both in the city and in the countryside have been obliged to look for informal alternatives, where there are no contracts and no social security.
The working family has suffered most in this process that government sources call “economic growth.” On the one hand, the prices of basic goods have soared, obliging householders to work miracles to put enough food on the table to feed a family. On the other hand, the disintegration of the family has made the slums easy ground for the consolidation of organized crime and widespread corruption.
Neoliberal policies imposed from above over the past twenty years have transformed the productive structure of the country. Industrial activity is reduced, and at the same time, the number of hectares of land producing crops has been drastically reduced. Economic activity is concentrated in the service sector and in speculation. Workers’ organizations have been reduced and the number of unionized workers is going down.
The Ministry of Labour systematically rejects petitions for setting up unions. In 2010 this reached the point of an attempt to put an end to Panamanian unionism by decree. The rejection of this governmental initiative cost several lives and hundreds of wounded in the banana plantations of Changuinola and in the city of Colón. In rural areas of Panama, agricultural communities have disappeared and traditional centres of agricultural production have engaged workers from the Ngobe Buglé area with wages way below the poverty line: Coffee in Boquete, rice in Soná and Alanje, sugar cane in Coclé, Herrera y Veraguas and bananas in Bocas del Toro and Barú.
The government of president Ricardo Martinelli has attempted to break the back of the Sindicato de los Trabajadores de la Construcción (SUNTRACS – construction workers’ union), as well as of the teachers’ associations: Asociación de Educadores de Veraguas (AEVE) and the Asociación de Profesores de la República de Panamá (ASOPROF). It is not by chance that a member of SUNTRACS, Genero López, is a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic. At the same time, the members of AEVE sympathize with the independent candidate, Professor Juan Jované.
Organized labour is not a determining factor in the electoral campaign. In addition to those mentioned, Alberto Reyes, general secretary of the Federación Auténtica de Trabajadores (FAT) stands out, in the Jované list.  But contrary to what happened some decades ago, there are no workers standing as candidates for popular election in the traditional parties.
Neoliberal policies have savaged the workers’ movement on a global scale. In the case of Latin America, popular governments headed by union leaders exist only in Bolivia (Evo Morales) and Venezuela (Nicolás Maduro). In countries such as the US and the European Union those who govern represent oligarchies from the 0.1 per cent of the population. They are multimillionaires. (The hundred members of the US Senate are millionaires. There is not one worker).
In the case of Panama, the head of government who is now packing his bags to abandon the Garzas Palace was a millionaire when he arrived and is now a multimillionaire. The majority of Congress members are seeking re-election for another five years in order to continue piling up millions. The present crisis of world capitalism has brought speculators to pillage and to dispossess workers. The policy of economic exploitation has been abandoned for a formula best described as looting. This new reality obliges workers to seek original formulas to complement traditional struggles in order to realize their conquests and their rights.
(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)
May 1, 2014
– Marco A. Gandásegui, Jr., is a professor of Sociology with the University of Panama and a researcher associated with CELA.