Construction companies want arbitration, workers vote to stay out on strike
by Eric Jackson
This is not a good year for construction workers to strike for higher pay and benefits, but it’s when the master contract between the United Construction and Similar Workers Syndicate (SUNTRACS) and the Panamanian Chamber of Construction (CAPAC) came due for renegotiation. Construction activity is down, as are most sectors of the national economy. It’s not mass starvation and food riots, but people are worried, inflation has eaten up most of the gains of years past and management in general sees opportunities. There is also labor unrest among the teachers, port workers, PanCanal tug crews and others.
But is it a good time for the construction barons to go to the mat? Many of them are caught up in the widespread Blue Apple bribery / kickback scandal, and if prosecutors and courts are so very considerate in declining to throw corrupt executives in jail, hefty fines are being ordered. President Varela also showed an understanding attitude with a veto of a law that would bar convicted construction companies and their principals from further public works jobs. Slow business and fines in the millions sort of even the playing field with organized labor.
CAPAC has been offering raises of four to five cents an hour to SUNTRACS, which union’s top leader, Saúl Méndez, angrily dismisses as “crumbs.” But the original SUNTRACS whiz-bang demand of 60 percent across the board went way down rather quickly. The last publicized union offer was in the ballpark of 15 percent.
SUNTRACS can get rough on the streets, and cops and company goons have been known to kill them over the years. But aside from brief street marches and briefer blockages or slowdowns for leafletting, the union has not tried to shut down the country this time around. The police riot squads have so far avoided provoking that sort of an escalation. But construction activity is shut down. There aren’t any scabs working, and if there were some protests by alleged SUNTRACS members demanding their strike pay, union leaders say that these are impostors hired by management.
After more than three weeks of no construction, CAPAC has softened its initial hard line stance and called for arbitration. The government likes the idea. However, the construction workers don’t and at their May 15 general assembly voted to reject arbitration and continue the strike. Stay tuned.