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"The country goes well... We go badly." Photo by Eric Jackson
The state of the Panamanian labor movement on Mayday 2009
Weak, divided, sullenly determined
by Eric Jackson
Two days before Panama went to the polls, that sector of the labor movement aligned with the homicidally anti-labor but purportedly socialist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) hardly showed their faces at the Mayday parade. Yes, CONATO (the National Confederation of Organized Workers) was there, but its largest affiliate, the obsequious public employees' FENASEP, hardly was. Many of the marchers in the CONATO contingents in fact carried signs and banners criticizing policies of the Torrijos administration.
CONATO's main rival on the left, CONUSI (the National Union Unity Council, which was thrown out of CONATO for opposing the partial privatization of the Social Security retirement fund), with its biggest union, the construction workers' SUNTRACS and the FRENADESO (National Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights) labor/left umbrella group? They were there, in numbers a bit reduced from previous years. Their message on this Friday holiday morning was not to vote, or to cast spoiled or blank ballots, in Sunday's elections. It seems that a lot of the rank-and-file decided just to head to the beach for a longer weekend that would include neither marching nor voting.
But meanwhile, FRENADESO's rival on the left, the ULIP (Unity of the Integral People's Struggle) labor/left umbrella group, with a large contingent of Coca-Cola workers, had stolen a march on FRENADESO since last year. The rival groups were of roughly comparable size, and ULIP's best-known leader, Professor Juan Jované, had just won a symbolic court victory that overturned the ban on independent presidential candidates. (Alas, not in time for Jované in the 2009 elections.)
Concurring with Jované and opposed to FRENADESO on the electoral politics issue was Priscilla Vásquez, a clinical psychologist, leader of one of the Seguro Social employees' unions, an independent candidate for representante in Juan Diaz and leader of the small Panamanian Workers Party (PTP). She was acting locally but thinking globally --- and about her profession --- as the conversation turned to the Bush administration torture scandal and the involvement of psychologists in these crimes. The politics, the law and the repercussions within professional organizations were all important and interesting to her, but the fundamental issue, as she saw it, was that "torture's really sick."
In the street not far away ASOPROF (Teachers Association) leader Andres Rodriguez, also one of the leading lights of FRENADESO, said that the educators' unions didn't see any point in trying to do battle with the lame duck Torrijos administration and expected nothing very pro-labor or pro-education from a Martinelli administration. He said that the teachers' unions would get together sometime after the election and issue a statement on the new situation. But meanwhile, the high school art teacher from Colon complained, the Torrijos administration started the school year more than a month late and still a lot of the school buildings weren't fit for classes, so there are some issues that as far as the unions are concerned can't wait.
The teachers and the public health care system workers are also facing the prospect of a lame duck PRD "decentralization" move to transfer health and education to municipal governments, without transferring the revenues for these responsibilities to be assumed on the local level. As far as the unions are concerned, this is just a way to trash public education and health care and privatize these services. If the PRD presses ahead and the new administration doesn't immediately backtrack, look for major public sector strikes shortly after the inauguration.
Two differences this year from previous years were the relative paucity of printed material being handed out by the different organizations marching in the Mayday parade, and this odd silence by which people from different factions weren't arguing, insulting, joking or comparing notes: it just appeared that they weren't on speaking terms with one another.
So determined poses were struck, but with a grim sense of each faction going it alone in tough economic times. The overall impression was of a labor movement weaker than it had been in years past. So will a right-wing government whose first string is largely composed of wealthy businessmen be a unifying or a shattering influence? There is a sense that organized labor will soon find out, and maybe not in battles of their choosing.
Dr. Juan Jované, leading the ULIP contingent. Photo by Eric Jackson
In the university workers' contingent. Photo by Eric Jackson
University workers' kids weigh in on our awful public education. Photo by José F. Ponce
Teachers' union leader Andrés Rodríguez, who teaches high school
art classes at Colegio Abel Bravo in Colon. Photo by Eric Jackson
A member of the teachers' contingent. Photo by Eric Jackson
Psychologist and Seguro Social union leader Priscilla Vásquez, who leads the Panamanian
Workers Party and ran as an independent for representante in Juan Diaz. Photo by Eric Jackson
The boys in one of the bands. Photo by Eric Jackson
From the small contingent of what on paper is Panama's largest
labor organization, the FENASEP government workers' union.
Administrations are about to change and both PRD hacks and
employees with legitimate civil service protection will be fired.
Photo by Eric Jackson
Drydocks workers, ¡PRESENTE! Photo by Eric Jackson
Valentín Santana, the legitimate king of the Naso nation that lives in Bocas del Toro, leading a
contingent of people who were thrown off their lands in San San Druy. Photo by Eric Jackson
A Coca-Cola worker and student, marching with the PAT (Thought and
Transformative Action) campus radical contingent. Photo by Eric Jackson
Part of the Coca-Cola workers' contingent, which may have been larger than the construction workers'
section and was certainly bigger than any union other than possibly SUNTRACS. Photo by Eric Jackson
The SUNTRACS construction workers' union pays homage to Mayday's origins.
Photo by Eric Jackson
A construction worker and his daughter. Photo by José F. Ponce
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