SUNTRACS: its art of negotiation
by Marco A. Gandásegui, Hijo
The construction workers’ union has unique characteristics. Its history goes back to the construction of the trans-isthmian railway and the French Canal in the 19th century. The struggles of the builders of the Panama Canal 100 years ago (1904-1914) were epic. In the middle of the last century, the military bases that surrounded the Canal were built into the US war strategies against Japan, Korea and then Vietnam (1935-1975). Despite persecution and repression, the workers preserved their fighting spirit and organization.
After the US military invasion of 1989 they reorganized at the United Construction and Similar Workers National Union – the Sindicato Único Nacional de Trabajadores de la Construcción y Similares (SUNTRACS). In a little more than 25 years it has turned into one of the country’s most powerful labor organizations. Unlike other unions, which have been battered by neoliberal policies, SUNTRACS has managed to unite workers in the construction sector and present a solid front to negotiate with employers.
In this country’s history there are examples of workers’ organizations that have contributed to the development of society with their sacrifices and labor conquests. These are the cases, for example, of the battles waged by the Panama Canal workers during the first half of the 20th century, as well as the workers of the banana plantations and cane fields in the middle of the last century.
Despite this history, there is a systematic policy of distorting workers’ struggles. The employer interests control the media, the education system and even many religious institutions. These are put at the service of those who believe that workers are not human beings.
Construction workers have been consistently winning spaces for themselves. On the one hand, SUNTRACS has achieved salary increases for its members. On the other, it enforces the labor and human rights of workers. This is due, above all, to two reasons: first, the tenacity of those in the group to maintain discipline and increase membership. Second, its capable negotiating with employers.
The recent 28-day SUNTRACS strike was misrepresented in the media. The demands of the workers had no place in the newspapers or on the television or radio airwaves. When a story appeared it was to say how many thousands of dollars the workers supposedly had hidden under their mattresses. Or it could be about the meetings that workers had with their peers in this country or abroad. The corporate media took advantage to associate workers with figures they considered dangerous to their interests.
No medium sent a journalist to interview the family of a striking construction worker to know their standard of living, their lifestyle or what aspirations they had for their children. For the mainstream media, the education system and many religions, the worker must be (and behave like) a machine. He must not have human feelings or thoughts of his own. He must place his family and the welfare of his children in a secondary place.
On the occasion of the construction workers strike there was a noteworthy case. Panama’s Catholic university, USMA, has an agreement with SUNTRACS to know their form of organization and share this knowledge with the students. In the middle of the strike, and once it was over, USMA was the target of attacks that branded it as a traitor to the employers’ class. USMA defended itself by pointing out that university thinking should be diverse and rich in nuances.
The attacks against SUNTRACS are not only aimed at a particular group of this country’s workers. They embrace all Panamanians who work to meet their basic needs. They attack workers and other social sectors for critical thinking, for the ability to conceive of changes that improve their living conditions, that allow them to live in a country with social justice. The employers’ mouthpieces hate the workers for their struggles.
The elite believe that making a concession to a union is a sign of weakness. But through its negotiating capacity – without violence — SUNTRACS managed to assert itself again. Their victory was a step in the right direction, even though the salary gain was a modest increase of cents per hour. It was still a triumph of the union over the bosses.