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Volume 15, Number 3
February 12, 2009

economy

Also in this section:
Torrijos set back by fraud, political defections in Transmovil plan
At least 10 of Panama's 34 brokerages stung by Madoff
Can green jobs be good jobs?
Venezuela's economy after 10 years of Chávez
On strike!
Business & Economy Briefs



Striking medical technicians outside the Seguro Social Policlinica in San Carlos

On strike! Shut it down!
by Eric Jackson

The second half of 2007 will go down in Panamanian economic history as the time when the momentum shifted from an anti-labor administration to a resurgent labor movement.

The Torrijos administration went on an offensive against the SUNTRACS construction workers' union, with its police or allied company goons killing two unarmed picketers that August and one union member who was seeking medical assistance early in 2008, and decertifying SUNTRACS in favor of a company union for the benefit of a group of investors headed by a Colombian who made death threats against union membes in La Prensa and including a convicted French embezzler and the president's (and Balbina Herrera's) campaign manager. (That decertification is now the subject of a criminal case against officials in this administration's Labor Ministry.) Spurious criminal conspiracy charges were brought against number two SUNTRACS official Saúl Méndez, later to be thrown out by a judge. Thus the country went into the fall of 2007 with the labor movement on the defensive and licking its wounds from a series of lost strikes, most notably the 2005 struggle over the privatization of the Social Security Fund's pension system  and the 2006 teachers' strike.

But that November the doctors in the Social Security and Ministry of Health systems walked off of the job, and despite the  government spending millions of dollars on an advertising campaign to vilify the physicians, the  National Medical Negotiating Committee (COMENENAL) toughed it out for 39 days. Polls indicated that despite all the ads people blamed the government in the dispute, and the government's threat to import foreign strikebreakers came to naught. Torrijos had to capitulate and settle.

One result was a sea change in Panmanian labor-management relations. This was not only because the pessimism of a long losing streak had been broken, but also because inflation was pressing pretty hard on virtually all Panamanians, to the point that accepting token wage increases was not a viable option for any union that depended on rank-and-file support rather than the company's patronage.

Knowing that several other health care sector unions had contracts about to expire, the Torrijos administration pushed through a 2009 national budget that included nothing for wage increases. All of the money for raises in the public health care system had gone to the doctors and there wouldn't be anything else, the government announced.

Since then we have seen a rolling series of public health system strikes. The Seguro Social clerical workers challenged Torrijos over the "no raises" stand, and walked off the job. This forced the cancellation of most non-emergency procedures because nobody would add the clericals' appointment-making duties to their work during the strike. The dispute was settled with the clericals getting a modest raise that didn't quite make them whole from inflation's ravages but went a long way in that direction.

Within less than a week, the medical technicians in both the Social Security and Ministry of Health systems walked out. The government talked tough, but then started to talk. The strike was not resolved as of the time this story was written.

Emergency services like x-rays for trauma patients are ongoing, but non-emergency surgery like the removal of ovarian cysts or repair of torn joint ligaments isn't happening and patients are having to go to private pharmacies rather than Seguro Social pharmacists to get prescriptions filled. The back-to-back clerical and technicians' strikes have delayed many appointments for months.

What's next? The nurses' contract is coming up. Their union leaders switched sides in the 2005 Seguro Social privatization strike, but given the change in the tenor of Panamanian labor relations they may not be able to cave to the government again and keep their positions. Thus, despite conservative leadership, the nurses may also walk out.



This strike meeting was tame, but there have been a few street blockages in the capital


 

Also in this section:
Torrijos set back by fraud, political defections in Transmovil plan
At least 10 of Panama's 34 brokerages stung by Madoff
Can green jobs be good jobs?
Venezuela's economy after 10 years of Chávez
On strike!
Business & Economy Briefs


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