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President Nayib Bukele’s war on the Salvadoran working class begins

Illustration: Valeria Olguín

In the middle of the night on Sept. 17, a masked group of men armed with knives and machetes attacked the headquarters of El Salvador’s largest and historic public sector union, the Salvadoran Social Security Institute Workers’ Union (STISSS), and forcefully ousted them from their union building.

This was not the first time the union leadership had been attacked. In April, a minority group within the STISSS attempted to usurp control of the union from the democratically-elected leadership. The coup d’état proved unsuccessful until Sept. 4, when Ronaldo Castro, the new Minister of Labor under the Nayib Bukele administration, illegally removed the democratically elected leadership of the STISSS and placed the minority group in the leadership of the executive board.

STISSS’s democratically elected leadership has made tremendous strides in the past 10 years to return rights and guarantees to workers nationally that had previously been sold by its former corrupt leadership. Salvadoran labor unions have always been at the forefront of the popular struggle. One of their biggest victories was in 2002 when doctors, nurses and workers from the public healthcare sector took to the streets to prevent the privatization of the national healthcare system. When the national strike was over, the workers had won.

Despite the continuous physical and political threats, the STISSS unionists refuse to sit back and allow the Bukele Administration to illegally dismantle one of El Salvador’s strongest unions. According to the STISSS elected leadership, the coup is the first piece of Bukele’s vision to privatize El Salvador’s public services. The elected leadership condemns “the aspiration of this government, presided over by Nayib Bukele, to return to the dark ages of labor relations. Given that the labor movement represented an obstacle to privatization in the past, every time that a public service was going to be privatized, the first thing that was done was debilitate the union.”

Within his first hundred days in office, Bukele has already violated numerous labor rights, including the dismissal of at least 1,000 public sector employees without compensation or reason, 80 percent of whom were women. These unwarranted mass firings have had a direct impact on public sector unions that foreshadow a government-wide crackdown on union organizing.

In El Salvador, union representatives form part of the National Minimum Wage Council, which plays a major role in setting the national minimum wage. Right now, the illegally appointed leadership of STISSS, backed by Bukele’s Labor Minister Ronaldo Castro, have been named labor representatives in the council. By ousting the elected leadership of STISSS and then replacing the union’s executive board with people backed by Castro, Bukele has created a situation in which negotiations in this council will now benefit the administration’s interests and ultimately undermine workers’ rights.

For example, Bukele has touted the idea of getting rid of the eight-hour workday in favor of a 12-hour workday and four day work-week. He argues that this will benefit workers who travel from rural areas to the larger city for work and allow them to spend more time with their families. However, the reality is that this change will benefit large U.S. corporations that have been promised cheap labor and increased productivity if they bring their business to El Salvador. Having the illegally appointed leadership on the Minimum Wage Council will ensure no push-back against Bukele’s measures. The council could also ensure that once the 12-hour workday in is effect, there wouldn’t be an increase in wages to compensate for the loss of overtime pay.

Since his inauguration, Bukele has expressed his preference for the interests of the private sector, especially those of U.S. investors. His actions against STISSS raise questions about whether or not Bukele is really a “president of the people.” This coup d’etat is but one example of Bukele’s agenda to bend Salvadoran policy to fit U.S. corporate needs.

The collusion between Trump and Bukele has Salvadorans facing privatization efforts similar to the last 10 years of privatization in Honduras. Because the progressive FMLN party, backed by the labor movement, was in power from 2009-2019, El Salvador hasn’t had to face the same struggles of Hondurans, but now with Bukele as president, privatization is viciously knocking on the peoples’ door. Salvadoran social movements have been threatened before and are ready to respond with resistance and resilience.

Since 1980, the grassroots organization known as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), has accompanied El Salvador’s social movement in their fight for social and economic justice. In 2002, when the right wing in El Salvador was attempting to sell off public and natural resources of the Salvadoran people, CISPES protested Salvadoran consulates, accompanied the people of El Salvador in marches, and brought Salvadoran organizers on tour to the United States. The Salvadoran labor movement was successful in their fight in 2002 and are preparing themselves for the uphill battle ahead.

Fascism is returning to the region with a vengeance, but unions in El Salvador remain committed to defending workers’ rights. Salvadoran unions need support from people in the United States in order to be victorious. A win for the working class in El Salvador is a win for everyone because it proves that working-class people can fight back against corporate attacks and succeed.

There are many ways that you can take action in solidarity with the struggle against privatization in El Salvador. To learn more about how you can help defend the democratically-elected leadership of the STISSS, go to www.cispes.org/takeactionand click on “Defend public sector unions in the face of attacks by the Minister of Labor and the Bukele administration!” to sign a petition. You can also take action by sharing a post on social media, and if you’re a union member, you can get your union to send a letter directly to the Minister of labor expressing your solidarity with the elected leadership of STISSS. For more information and other ways to get involved in CISPES, contact bayarea@cispes.org.

Story by: Marissa Jefferies, CISPES

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