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Strike ends, three months of dialogue underway
by Eric Jackson, in part from other media
As the weekend of June 24-26 began, there were many expectations of violent social conflicts to come the following Monday.
Over the preceding days the usual scene of battles between riot police and protesters, the stretch of the Transistmica in front of the University of Panama, had been the proving ground for a studentís homemade rocket launcher, and before that just up the road police had opened fire on striking health care workers with rubber bullets. The possibility of the violence escalating until someone was killed was on many a mind and few people felt sure of what such a turn of events would carry in its wake.
The Panama Chamber of Construction (CAPAC) was threatening to bring in strikebreakers to major projects in Panama City, and the SUNTRACS construction workersí union was vowing to fight any such effort. On the morning of Saturday the 25th a few people began to work at some of the cityís construction sites, under the close watch of both police guards and union observers. There were no confrontations that day, but an explosive situation was in the air.
Earlier in the week the Catholic bishops had called upon President Torrijos to suspend the unpopular Law 17 for 90 days of dialogue, and to invite the strikersí umbrella group FRENADESSO to those talks. The president had blown off that request, and meanwhile the strikers had denounced the Council of University Rectors as PRD controlled and partial, thus unsuitable for any real dialogue.
Meanwhile the strike by construction workers and employees of the public health and education systems showed no sign of diminishing and a number of middle class groups began to stage protests against Law 17 of their own. Most ominously, the unrest had spread to the bus drivers, who in this country usually own the vehicles they drive. In Veraguas the buses stopped running for part of one day, and if the nationwide bus strike that was being suggested by some of the drivers came to pass the whole country would have promptly shut down.
So when those who had agreed to participate in the presidentís dialogue --- mainly business groups, but also the anti-strike, pro-PRD CONATO labor federation --- met for the first time that Saturday morning, they unanimously passed a resolution reiterating the bishopís request that Torrijos had earlier rejected.
So it came to pass that afternoon that a visibly annoyed President Torrijos went on television and announced that he would ask the National Assembly to suspend Law 17 for 90 days and warn that his gesture should not be taken as a sign of weakness. He didnít mention FRENADESSO in his speech, but it later became clear that he had also backed down on his prior insistence that the strikers have no place at the talks designed to end the strike.
SUNTRACS was the first union to call off its strike after Torrijos backed down, with health care workers and teachers returning to the job after their unions took votes over the next few days. However, FRENADESSO skipped the following few dialogue meetings, insisting that they wouldnít sit down to talk until the legislation suspending Law 17 was passed and signed.
That having been done, business and labor factions that have been irreconcilable for years of negotiations are back at the table with government representatives and organizations of retirees and professionals, with the whole process being moderated by the rector of Panama Technological University and observed by the nationís religious leaders. The first big argument has been about methodology, with FRENADESSO demanding that the government fully disclose all economic data relevant to the Seguro Social dispute and the anti-labor mainstream news media that had for months uncritically published misleading government figures that excluded the income from the Social Security Fundís (CSS's) investments claiming that the labor demand was just an exercise in obstruction.
Itís very unlikely that at the end of the process Law 17 would be reinstated unchanged --- even a large segment of PRD supporters would oppose that, and only a tiny fringe of Panamanian society has an economic interest in the law remaining as is --- but an agreement between business and labor seems very far away.
The Social Security Fund's retirement system is not at the present time in the red, but nobody who's serious claims that there is no problem looming for the future. The paths of least resistance for a negotiated settlement would be for labor to accept the three-year increase in the retirement age, the government to at least partially accept the labor movement's demand that real estate assets from the former Canal Zone be assigned to Seguro Social, big business to accept more controls over the private investment of CSS assets than Law 17 would have required, and, most importantly for public policy, for the government to soften its increase in contributions needed to qualify for a pension from 15 to 25 years by allowing those who meet the old minimum but who won't meet the higher standard by the time they hit retirement age to be able to receive reduced pensions rather than being thrown out on the streets with no income.
However, lesser resistance isn't the same thing as no resistance, and at this point it appears that nobody is very eager to compromise. The factor that will work in favor of the talks being fruitful is that whoever looks intransigent or obstructionist is bound to lose the battle for public opinion. Of course the mainstream media are already saying that FRENADESSO has no proposals and is obstructing the talks, but the credibility of those news organizations with most of the Panamanian people has been one of the most spectacular casualties of the strike. That said, if labor and the left take too strident and unyielding a tone the president could reinstate the law after 90 days with only minor changes and it would be difficult to revive the strike movement. On the other hand, without significant concessions both to organized labor and the self-employed it's unlikely that MartŪn Torrijos's public approval ratings will rise much above their current 20-something levels.