The construction workers and their union can look pretty formidable on the streets — which is the point, or at least one of the main ones. Photo from the SUNTRACS Twitter feed.
Are we about to see a construction strike?
by Eric Jackson
The epidemic’s generalized economic misery has a lot of people out of work, a lot of those who have jobs working fewer hours, some of those who have government jobs and almost all of those who have government contracts not being paid on time, and trips to the grocery stores to get basic items more expensive each time.
The banks were taken care with a billion-dollar subsidy soon after COVID’s arrival and there have been make-work jobs and other sinecures for PRD activists, but things are closing in on them, too.
You can see it from the bus. Lately, if riding on the nation’s main drag in Chiriqui, people may have seen it in a delay while rice farmers were blocking the road to demand higher prices from the government. For the rice growers, it’s not just the hike in the cost of living, but also increased prices for the fuel and chemicals that they use to produce their crops. Down that same Pan-American Highway in Panama Oeste, is that an upscale residential development with nobody tending the guardhouse and the gate open?
The master construction contract between the Panamanian Chamber of Construction (CAPAC) and the Unitary Syndicate of Construction and Similar Workers (SUNTRACS) expires on July 1. Contract talks are ongoing right now. The union is talking a 26 percent raise phased in over the life of a four-year contract. Management is talking a one cent per hour raise every year of the next four.
SUNTRACS and CAPAC are both keenly aware of what the market will bear. Each has in its own way gained a hardcore militant reputation.
It’s a PRD administration and the bad blood goes way back to the dictatorship when dozens of militants in the leftist underground to which the SUNTRACS founders and current leaders trace roots were disappeared and killed by soldiers and police. Under the last PRD administration, that of Martín Torrijos, there was a concerted campaign of police and company goon violence and the promotion of campany unions aimed at crushing SUNTRACS. Labor activists died, but CAPAC ended up settling with the union.
The leftist movement from which the union arose has its own electoral expression. It hasn’t gotten anyone elected to public office. SUNTRACS isn’t aligned with any of the opposition parties or independents in the National Assembly. At the moment they’re sounding the alarm about Rubén Blades and Ricardo Lombana urging their followers to join forces. Even most SUNTRACS members don’t vote for the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD). It’s fashionable for political observers in the rabiblanco media and pundits for the political parties and business organizations to bash SUNTRACS. Nevertheless, time and again construction workers who may be otherwise social conservatives have shown that that they do want hardcore militants negotiating with the boss for them. They’re willing to put their bodies on the line – usually just standing in the road, but over the years there have been some pitched battles, too.
CAPAC tends to see itself as the engine of Panama’s economy and until recently there seemed to be no limits on its less honest members’ impunity. As to government contracting the Odebrecht and Blue Apple scandals may have set some limits. As to residential construction and business towers, it’s still kind of the wild west in their industry. Except that notwithstanding generally irrelevant public building inspection, banks will hire competent inspectors to see that they don’t lend money with junk for collateral. Except that word does get around about developers to avoid. Except that money can be and often enough is lost on real estate projects and developers can go and have gone barkrupt. Except for the union.
So, by next July will the epidemic be declared over, MAGAs fleeing the downfall of the white race in the USA come swarming to Panama’s beach and mountain enclaves and a company office in one of Panama City’s skyscrapers be all the rage? Would that set the stage for SUNTRACS to up its demand for not only the moon, but a thick layer of green cheese? Would CAPAC counter that they can only afford a thin topping of yellow American pasteurized process cheeselike imitation food stuff?
Judging from the past, looking into the future from a troubled present, the odds are that although a strike may intervene with the government coming down on the side of management, SUNTRACS and CAPAC will settle on some middle point. We are probably not headed for four more plague years, but the nation’s and the world’s recovery are likely to be slow and tumultuous. That’s what all of the credible international institutions whose job is to project such things are saying. Perhaps there will be an agreement designed to take the uncertainties into account, perhaps with tiny raises now but wage talks to re-open during the next master contract’s term. Perhaps a one-year contract. Perhaps a deal with a cost of living provision. These folks know all the tricks.
One of the bottom lines, though? Construction workers’ families don’t go hungry while construction executives get fabulously richer. Rice farmers don’t go broke as the price of rice in the supermarkets rises. Otherwise that’s likely to result in ever more strikes and road blockages, and not just by this union and these farmers. Nito won’t be able to just push a button and have them all taken away. Nor press another button to turn on the green cheese machine and make everyone who likes the stuff happy.
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