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ISR Issue 51, JanuaryFebruary 2007
The day the jackal died
Chile celebrates the death of Augusto Pinochet
By LANCE SELFA
As the ISR went to press, news that Chile’s ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet died at age ninety-one reached us.
Word of the dictator’s death spread around Chile—indeed, around the rest of the world as well—in short order. Within a few minutes, crowds gathered in town squares and street corners across Chile. Bottles of champagne saved for the occasion were popped and spontaneous celebrations began. In Santiago, crowds poured into the streets and made their way to La Moneda Palace, the presidential palace where, on September 11, 1973, elected reformist President Salvador Allende perished in the Pinochet-led military coup.
“December 10 will never be forgotten,” a veteran socialist celebrating in Santiago told the Argentine newspaper Página 12, “The day the jackal died.”
According to the rules of etiquette, it’s considered polite “not to speak ill of the dead.” But what if the deceased was a killer with the blood of tens of thousands on his hands? The ISR joins with the thousands who took to the streets of Chile to celebrate the death of this monster. The only pity was that he died in an assisted living facility—and not in a prison where he deserved to be. Though there is sweet irony in his passing on International Human Rights Day.
“This criminal has departed without ever being sentenced for all the acts he was responsible for during his dictatorship,” Hugo Gutierrez, a human rights lawyer, told the Associated Press.
Emblematic of Pinochet’s brutality was the fate of popular folk-singer Victor Jara, who was arrested and sent to Santiago stadium with hundreds of others to be tortured and sometimes killed. Pinochet’s troops crushed and burned his hands and wrists so he could not play, and then machine-gunned him to death.
Pinochet ruled Chile with an iron first from 1973 to 1989, departing only after a 1988 referendum forced him to call elections. The Pinochet regime rounded up and murdered thousands of trade unionists, peasant activists, community leaders, intellectuals, and students.
Not only was his regime bloody and dictatorial, but it also launched a radical free-market program—inspired by free-market ideologues at the University of Chicago—that systematically destroyed the living standards of the mass of Chileans while lining the pockets of Pinochet and his rich friends. It is poetic justice that the chief “Chicago school” economist, Milton Friedman, died in November.
All of these atrocities had the approval of the CIA and the U.S. intelligence agencies that helped Pinochet into power and defended his rule. Any U.S. government claim that it didn’t know what was happening in Chile is simply a lie.
A 1974 internal State Department memo unearthed by the National Security Archive reported: “A documented case can be made for the proposition that the current regime in Chile is militaristic, fascistic, tyrannical and murderous.” Nevertheless, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who once said that the U.S. would not allow a country “to go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people” in electing a left-wing regime, assured Pinochet in 1976: “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here…. We want to help, not undermine you.”
Pinochet once boasted “Not a leaf moves in this country if I’m not moving it.” That was in an earlier time. More recently, as human rights lawyers and courts closed in on him, Pinochet gave the appearance of an aged Mafia Don—sick and doddering, hardly someone who could be held accountable for his actions. This act worked to keep him out of prison, even though he continued to face the threat of indictment and trial for his crimes.
For years, Pinochet maintained that, however brutal his methods, he was merely acting to save the nation from communism. But even many of his supporters deserted him in 2004 when a U.S. Senate investigation revealed that Pinochet kept millions in secret bank accounts in the Riggs Bank in Washington and in other foreign banks. Still, courts continuously ruled that he was too sick to be tried.
And the world’s leading governments never exerted enough pressure or interest to bring him to justice. That was because however embarrassed Pinochet’s excesses made them, they recognized that he was one of them.
Of all the sanctimonious and dishonest statements on Pinochet’s death emerging from world capitals, none was more dishonest than the one issued from the White House: “Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile represented one of the most difficult periods in that nation’s history,” said Tony Fratto, White House spokesman. “Our thoughts today are with the victims of his reign and their families.”
Fratto should tell that to the families of thousands who were kidnapped, tortured, and “disappeared” under the direction of the CIA, in league with Pinochet’s secret services. Tell that to the descendents of hundreds of activists who were assassinated in exile throughout the Americas under the aegis of “Operation Condor.” Tell that to the families of Orlando Letelier, Allende’s former foreign minister, and Ronni Karpen Moffit, his twenty-six-year-old American colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies, who died in a Pinochet-ordered 1976 car bombing in Washington, D.C.
Pinochet may be gone, but his accomplices and abettors live on. We owe it to the thousands who perished at Pinochet’s hand to continue the fight against his allies.
Lance Selfa is on the editorial board of the ISR.
After the landslide
Chávez and the future of Venezuela
By LEE SUSTAR
HUGO CHÁVEZ’S overwhelming reelection victory in the December 3 presidential vote in Venezuela was yet another blow to the pro-market, neoliberal “Washington consensus” that dominated Latin America in the 1990s. At the same time, Chávez’s win brings to the fore a debate on the nature of the alternative to neoliberalism—a model of national economic development that the Venezuelan president calls “socialism for the twenty-first century.”
“Those who voted for me, didn’t vote for me, they voted for a socialist project to construct a profoundly different Venezuela, they voted for a project, they voted for a profound consciousness,” Chávez said at the ceremony certifying the election results. Chávez’s vote total of nearly 63 percent was personally humiliating for George W. Bush, whose administration backed a failed coup against the Venezuelan leader in 2002.
The coup backfired, instead propelling Chávez to greater support through mass resistance to the coup and, thanks to rising funds from oil revenue, a vast expansion of social programs. This turnabout stings all the more in Washington because of Chávez’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September that heaped scorn on Bush and called for opposition to U.S. imperialism.
And when Chávez returned home to triumph in his elections, Bush’s party was humiliated by U.S. voters. The only recourse for U.S. officials was to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election that was, they claim, tainted by Chávez’s supposedly authoritarian tendencies. This tack failed when Chávez’s opponent, Manuel Rosales, conceded that the incumbent president had won the election. Even a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson acknowledged the Venezuelan people’s “commitment to a democratic process.”
In Latin America and the rest of the world, Chávez’s victory will be seen as the latest rebuff to the free-market neoliberal agenda orchestrated by the U.S. government and international financial institutions. Just a week before Chávez’s victory, an ally, Rafael Correa, won election as president of Ecuador, a vote that followed the victory of Washington’s old nemesis, Sandinista Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua’s presidential elections.
The list of Washington’s conservative allies in Latin America has shrunk to Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who won office through widespread election fraud, and Álvaro Uribe, the strongman president of Colombia kept in office by repression and billions of U.S. aid under the guise of the “war on drugs.”
And now Venezuela, once known for its U.S.-style bipartisan consensus and a pro-Washington foreign policy, has given rise to Chávez’s socialism for the twenty-first century and anti-imperialist defiance.
Ever since a U.S.-backed coup in 2002 failed to oust Chávez, the Venezuelan president has been Bush’s most bitter critic on the world stage. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, Chávez taunted Bush as the “devil” and denounced U.S. imperialism. “The imperialists see extremists everywhere,” he said. “It’s not that we are extremists. It’s that the world is waking up. It’s waking up all over. And people are standing up.” Chávez has sought to build Latin American and Third World solidarity against the U.S. as well.
Now, backed by Venezuela’s poor majority and with the leverage of an oil-driven economy, Chávez has won reelection and the opportunity to consolidate what he calls the “Bolivarian revolution,” named for the leader of the nineteenth century wars of independence.
On the Venezuelan Left, however, the political debate has already moved beyond Chávez’s victory to a discussion of how to achieve socialism for the twenty-first century. “We have to defend the [revolutionary] process, because if not, it will slip out of our hands,” said peasant leader Roberto Viera.
To understand the prospects for a new Venezuela, it’s necessary to understand the reasons for the collapse of the old. The skyline of the capital of Caracas is still dominated by gray concrete towers built during the mid-1970s oil boom, when Carlos Andres Pérez, president of the then-ruling Democratic Action Party (AD, according to its initials in Spanish) nationalized the oil industry, creating a state company called PDVSA.
Unprecedented oil revenues also opened the way to big loans from U.S. banks. Venezuela, it was said, would leave the Third World behind and become an international economic success story. A decade later, however, falling oil prices and rising interest rates had shattered the debt-ridden Venezuelan economy.
In February 1989, another AD government, with Pérez again having been elected to office, instituted austerity measures that raised the price of gasoline and increased bus fares, triggering a riot that become known as the Caracazo. The armed forces put down the rebellion, killing hundreds, though the exact number was never known. That experience spurred a circle of left-wing nationalist military officers led by Chávez to plot a coup in 1992.
The coup was betrayed and collapsed, but Chávez’s televised speech made him a hero—a point recognized by a former president, Rafael Caldera of the conservative COPEI party, who seized the moment to launch a political comeback as an independent. Again elected president, Caldera pursued unpopular austerity programs, deepening the political crisis. Discredited and disintegrating, the AD-COPEI duopoly that had endured since 1958 gave way to Chávez’s first election victory in late 1998.
An early focus for Chávez was revamping the political system through a Constituent Assembly, which wrote a new constitution under which Chavez won a second presidential election in 2000. With the economy shrinking, Chávez scrambled to try to make good on his promises to improve life for the poor, including using the military for hastily conceived, and largely ineffective, economic projects.
The ruling class—known in Venezuela as the oligarchy—assembled a political opposition, with the middle class serving as its troops and the corrupt union federation, the CTV, providing political cover.
The Washington-approved military coup of April 2002 sought to abolish the elected government and ban freedom of speech. But the coup collapsed when the mass of Caracas’s poor turned out into the streets to surround the presidential palace and an army base across town. Faced with the loss of control over the troops, the military coup-makers backed down and returned Chávez to the presidential place. Instead of ousting Chávez, the coup had strengthened him politically. The man who once aimed to take power by military means on behalf of the impoverished masses had been kept in power by the action of the urban poor.
Next, the oligarchy tried to use economic leverage—its control of the state oil company. A “strike” by CTV unions in PDVSA in late 2002—in reality, a lockout by top executives and technical personnel—pushed the economy to the brink. But the lockout was broken by rank-and-file oil workers and soldiers who gradually revived production despite widespread sabotage by management. Again, a move aimed at isolating Chávez had achieved the opposite, activating the previously passive organized working class into a social and political struggle against the Right. As a result, the CTV was discredited, opening the way for the formation of a new left-wing union federation, the UNT.
By late 2003, Chávez had the resources needed to make good on his economic program, thanks to the sharp rise in the world price of oil. The program took the form of a series of “missions”—initiatives that bypassed the sclerotic, opposition-dominated state bureaucracy to tap the new activism among the poor and the working class. Among the “missions” were literacy and education programs, health care initiatives involving Cuban doctors, subsidized grocery stores for the urban poor, housing construction, restoring land to the indigenous, and economic programs for those in the informal economy.
“Over the past four years over two million hectares have been redistributed to over 130,000 families, which represent nearly one million Venezuelans, wrote Venezuela-based journalist Gregory Wilpert on the Web site Venezuelanalysis.com.
Also, hundreds of thousands of families have benefited from the urban land reform program, acquiring titles to their self-built homes in the barrios, thereby stabilizing their housing situation.Such policies of reintroducing welfare state social programs, of redistributing wealth, and of creating self-managed workplaces, represent a significant step in the transformation of the Venezuelan economy, even if Venezuela still has an upper class that benefits from a booming economy and even if the economy still depends on the oil industry.
These programs, along with record economic growth, cut the percentage of the population living in poverty from 44 percent in 1998 to about 34 percent today, according to government statistics. The number of those considered extremely poor dropped from 17 percent to nearly 10 percent.
The missions highlight the dynamics of what the Venezuelan Left call the “revolutionary process”—reforms from above that intersect with self-activity from below, giving Chávez a popularity that helped him to an easy victory in the 2004 recall election. This appeal—plus his attempts to resist U.S. domination and challenge the world’s economic hierarchy—sets Chávez apart from the center-left governments that run Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, which govern through conventional political methods and have sought to moderate neoliberalism rather than carry out far-reaching reforms. By contrast, Chávez is seeking to consolidate the changes in Venezuela.
His challenger in the election, Rosales, was one of the signers of the coup decree of 2002 and the current governor of Zulia state. The fact that a prominent coup plotter is free and ran for president gives the lie to the Venezuelan opposition’s claims that Chávez is ushering in an authoritarian state. In fact, the privately owned Venezuelan media is virulently anti-Chávez and regularly denounces the government.
Right-wing parties function openly, too. Their failure to mount a serious challenge to Chávez in this year’s election is the result of internal squabbles and their discredited political past—chiefly, their ties to the U.S. According to the New York Times, the U.S. government has funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups in the past five years, including $25 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Anti-Chávez business leaders are willing to bide their time for now, as booming oil exports spur Venezuela to some of the world’s highest economic growth rates—an annual pace of 10.2 percent in the third quarter of 2006.
Before Chávez’s victory, Rosales and the Right initially denounced the election process as unfair, while carrying out sporadic armed street clashes with police, known as “guarimbas,” to try to portray the Venezuelan state as repressive. In the end, however, the scale of Chávez’s victory forced Rosales to drop this approach and accept the results.
While the possibility of a right-wing coup remains, the Venezuelan opposition for now will likely be forced into a long-term strategy of trying to delegitimize the Chávez government. For its part, the Left is organizing to press for more radical change—and to give a working-class content to Chávez’s call for socialism for the twenty-first century.
Some 10,000 left-wing activists from labor unions, indigenous communities, neighborhood organizations, and peasant groups marched in Caracas November 20 to both show support for Chávez’s reelection and call for deepening the revolutionary process through a decisive turn toward socialism. The numbers on the march may seem small in comparison to the gigantic pro-Chávez election rally the following week, but the event highlights the growth of a Venezuelan Left rooted in the struggles of the poor.
This is in contrast to the 2004 presidential recall election, when the Far Left had a much weaker profile. Since then, the economic boom has given workers greater leverage to organize, as the UNT has outstripped or replaced moribund CTV unions in most cases. The UNT is divided, with a Left grouped into the United Revolutionary and Autonomous Class-Struggle Current (C-CURA), based mainly in the private sector, and a more moderate Workers Collective in Revolution (CTR), led by Marcela Máspero of the health workers’ union and based mainly on government employees’ unions outside the oil sector.
While both wings of the UNT supported Chávez’s reelection, Máspero’s CTR favors closer ties between the labor movement and the Venezuelan state, while the C-CURA stresses the need for independent unions, rank-and-file activism, and an aggressive stance in bargaining for both public and private employees.
Key issues include the takeover of closed factories under workers’ control and the nature of the 100,000 cooperative businesses initiated by the government, “Ninety percent of the cooperatives are [the result of] the casualization of labor, outsourcing, political clientelism and a decline in the quality of work,” Orlando Chirino, a UNT national coordinator and leader of its C-CURA wing, told an interviewer recently. The split in the UNT is part of a wider debate on the need for “revolution within the revolution”—the phrase used by the Left to protest against pockets of government corruption and cronyism.
Chávez has even called on workers and the poor to step up pressure on government officials—and in recent months, they have increasingly done so. Indigenous activists are calling for greater resources to be spent in poor, undeveloped areas. Peasant groups are demanding more, and faster paced land reform, and activists among the urban poor are pressing for programs that go beyond the poverty missions to include economic development with good-paying, long-term jobs.
This pressure from the Left underscores the contradictions of the “Bolivarian revolution.” On the one hand, workers and the poor have been activated by the state’s reforms; on the other, the employers have not yet been squeezed, let alone expropriated, by workers. The implementation of “co-management” in industry hasn’t fundamentally changed the relationship of class forces, argues the C-CURA wing of the UNT and the Party of Revolutionary Socialism. And while Venezuela’s social programs are transforming the lives of the poor and economic growth is reducing the numbers in poverty, the economy remains dominated by the world price of oil, putting these gains at risk when prices decline.
Government plans for twenty-first century socialism remain vague, and the goal of “endogenous economic development” for greater national self-sufficiency is still on the drawing boards. The government also continues to repay foreign debts racked up by the corrupt governments of the past, limiting funds available for social programs.
More generally, what is at stake in Venezuela is the nature of the revolutionary process itself. For the emerging Far Left, revolution isn’t the culmination of a series of government reforms from above, no matter how radical. Rather, it is the self-emancipation of the working class and the liberation of the oppressed.
According to the UNT’s Chirino, it was necessary both to mobilize for the biggest possible vote for Chávez and to deepen the struggle. “There’s no contradiction,” he told an interviewer.
We defend the great part of the president’s social programs, but we are critical, and we want to go on to a discussion about socialism in the twenty-first century, which to us means full liberty, equality under the law and benefits. They can’t look for votes with a blank check. We want ten million votes to create a socialist Venezuela, without landlords, without bosses, without criminals, without bureaucrats—and this is a transitional stage in which participative democracy has to function.
As tumultuous as recent years have been in Venezuela, much more struggle is to come—and its impact will be felt across Latin America and around the world.
Lee Sustar writes for Socialist Worker and is a regular contributor to the ISR.
Standoff in Bolivia
Evo Morales is caught between the forces of reaction and rebellion
By TOM LEWIS
AS THIS issue of the ISR went to press, Bolivia stood poised on the edge of a political precipice with partition of the country and civil war hanging in the balance. Governors of four out of the nine Bolivian states scheduled rallies and town meetings (cabildos) for the weekend of December 16–17 to determine whether to declare de facto autonomy from the federal government.
In response, President Evo Morales promised military intervention to defend the territorial unity of Bolivia, although he ruled out martial law for the moment. He called upon the rank and file of his Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS) to use street actions to block the potentially secessionist cabildos from taking place. Morales further urged MAS militants to set up human blockades encircling the opposition cities of Santa Cruz and Tarija.
The immediate cause of the worsening crisis between the MAS government and the gas-rich states of the “media luna”—Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz, and Tarija, so called because their position on the map resembles a “half-moon”—concerned the percentage of votes needed to approve articles elaborated in the Constituent Assembly. All parties agree that a two-thirds majority is required to approve the final text of the new constitution. Delegates from the media luna and the opposition parties also argue that a two-thirds majority is required to approve individual articles as they come up for vote in assembly deliberations. MAS delegates, however, maintain that only a simple majority is needed to pass individual articles.
Settling the question will decide which social forces are best positioned to control the Constituent Assembly. In last July’s delegate election, MAS candidates won a majority, but not two-thirds, of seats in the assembly. While it expected to win two-thirds or more of the popular vote, it had earlier compromised with opposition parties on a complicated voting system that ensured it could receive at most 158 of the 255 assembly seats (a two-thirds majority would require 170). Without this compromise, the right wing would have continued to block the holding of the delegate election.
Thus, today, if it turns out that individual articles must be passed with a two-thirds majority, then the media luna, where the openly neoliberal parties have their strongest base, will be able to wield effective veto power in the assembly. If articles can be passed with a simple majority, however, MAS can dominate the process.
Recently MAS sought another compromise by offering to require a two-thirds majority for approval of articles of so-called foundational importance if the Right would allow a simple majority to suffice for approval of the rest. The Right quickly rejected the proposal, and the media luna today remains united behind a demand for a two-thirds majority across the board.
The failure of this second compromise reveals not only the right wing’s intransigence and its determination to engage in a “no holds barred” struggle, but it also demonstrates the MAS’s willingness to negotiate away any chance of achieving truly fundamental change. This basic pattern—obstructionism from the Right, concessions and piecemeal reform from the government—has become the defining characteristic of Bolivian politics since the MAS took over the government a year ago.
Openly neoliberal parties—principally PODEMOS, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), and the National Unity party (UN)—dominate official politics in the media luna. These parties remain identified with the largely traditional creole oligarchy of petroleum, land, and mining interests that imposed neoliberalism in the mid-1980s and subsequently profited by allowing transnational corporations to exploit Bolivia’s natural resources and to privatize Bolivian industry and social services.
The neoliberal oligarchs fear that any change in the existing political constitution of the Bolivian state would benefit the majority of indigenous and working-class Bolivians at their expense. They have proven themselves willing to fight tooth and nail to block the tamest land reform as well as to prevent any reduction in their power to continue to strike independent deals with the energy and mining transnationals (deals that would exclude the altiplano and poorer regions to the west from sharing in the profits and other benefits of foreign investment).
From the outset the MAS government has bent over backwards to appease the oligarchy and media luna, along with the foreign investors and international financial institutions whom they serve. Its new agrarian reform law, for example, redistributes only land that is currently unproductive and thus ends up awarding peasants the least arable parcels. In fact, the latifundio system (large tracts held by a tiny elite of wealthy landowners) remains untouched as the infrastructure of Bolivian agriculture.
While the new petrochemical contracts negotiated by the MAS do assure marginally larger royalties flowing to the Bolivian treasury, they basically leave the gas and oil transnationals a free hand to exploit resources as they wish (i.e., with little concern for environmental damage or for workers’ rights). Fatally, the new contracts accomplish next to nothing toward facilitating the domestic industrialization of natural gas. Thus they leave Bolivia without any realistic hope of raising itself out of the trap of being an economy primarily based on the export of raw materials.
Morales continues to sell unprocessed natural gas to Argentina and Brazil at prices scandalously below market value (roughly $3.80 per MBTU instead of $15.40), resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars each year. A similar sweetheart deal that also has the effect of perpetuating Bolivia’s economic dependency is the recent contract the government signed with an Indian transnational to exploit the Mutún iron and magnesium mine. The Mutún mine represents the world’s largest known deposit of iron ore and could provide a dramatic opportunity for advancing publicly owned and controlled mining and metals processing.
Nor has the MAS been reluctant to use violence to repress the social movements who actively criticize it. It happily summons the forces of the social movements when it wishes to mobilize the masses against the Right. But it fiercely resists any attempt from the Left to apply street pressure for significant social change.
Thus it fired on a demonstration of cocaleros earlier this year, killing several protesters, while earning brownie points from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Its reneging on campaign promises to rebuild the state-owned sector of the mining industry led to a fratricidal confrontation between public- and private-sector miners in Huanuni during October. The MAS government turned a deaf ear over the course of several months to entreaties from public-sector workers to move ahead on re-nationalization, as well as to warnings that transnational interests were inciting the private-sector workers to seize remaining publicly owned mines.
These moderate and, in some cases, retrograde measures have all been designed to show the Bolivian Right and international capital that Morales and the MAS are “reasonable” players on the domestic and global stages. But such steps have only served to embolden the Right while frittering away a favorable conjuncture for real and profound social change.
In the view of Oscar Olivera, a leader of the Cochabamba Gas War in 2000 and of the Coalition to Defend Bolivia’s Natural Resources today, the issues of land reform and transnational capitalism in Bolivia constitute a “social space in which the question of any fundamental transformation can only be decided by force.” Without an absolutely gigantic mobilization of the masses, Olivera believes that even “the Constituent Assembly is a process that is already dead.”
Three years ago Olivera suggested that the logic of events in Bolivia would lead sooner or later to civil war. An accelerating process of social polarization has indeed defined the intervening years. Civil war is not a certainty, Olivera states, since, if the MAS keeps following its path of attempting to appease the Right, Morales will end up squandering any chance for social transformation. “If civil strife does not eventually break out here,” he continues, “it will be because the government has done nothing that really threatens the interests of those who presently rule Bolivia.”
Tom Lewis is a member of the ISR editorial board and a frequent contributor on Latin American questions.
Strike against neoliberalism
Greek teachers build an opposition in the streets
By ANTONIS DAVANELLOS
ON SEPTEMBER 18, 2006, primary school teachers in Greece began a five-day strike demanding a large wage increase that violates the government’s income policy. The strikers also defied privatization measures being pushed by the right-wing government, which is seeking to amend the Greek constitution to challenge the public character of education.
The teachers’ strike is part of a more general radicalization in education. Last spring saw a wave of occupations on university campuses, consecutive twenty-four-hour strikes by high school teachers and university professors, and large demonstrations in all major cities. During that period, the primary school teachers remained inactive. Constituting the poorest section of the Greek educational system, they suffered the most severe attacks during the 1990s, partly because their union is weak and bureaucratic.
On September 18 nobody believed that the teachers could pull off a five-day strike. They got no support from PASOK, the social democratic party, which supports amending the constitution and privatizing education. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) not only withheld support but also accused the teachers of being “conservative” and denounced the strike in the party press, mainly because it does not control the teachers’ union. Nevertheless, the strike lasted for six weeks and in the process stirred up all of Greece.
Central to the strike effort was the active involvement of radicalized youth. They organized strike committees in every school and put an emphasis on winning the support of parents and residents in every neighborhood.
The strike started out with 85 percent participation across the country. An initial rally held in the center of Athens was enormous, with high levels of participation by young people. The government attacked the protesters, unleashing riot police and using massive amounts of tear gas and pepper spray. The attack served only to fire up people’s anger. Each Wednesday for six consecutive weeks, large demonstrations shook all the major Greek cities.
The strike movement spread into other sectors of education. High school teachers and university professors started to hold forty-eight-hour strikes every Thursday and Friday. The Union The Union Federation of the whole public sector was forced to call three twenty-four-hour general strikes. Only the General Federation of the private sector (which is tightly controlled by the social democrats and the right wing) remained distant, calling only a few four-hour stoppages. College students were also late to act; they were in the middle of an exam period and, having lost three months of school and an exam period during the occupation of last spring, were waiting for the end of October—when the amendment of the constitution would be discussed in the Parliament—before beginning their mobilization. High school students, on the other hand, got caught up in the heat of the strike, and by October 20, 800 high schools across the country were under occupation. A public opinion poll taken at the time showed 70 percent of the public supporting the strike and the teachers’ demands. All the neoliberal policies of the right-wing government were in danger. The social democrats decided to try and defuse the crisis by proposing to postpone discussion of the constitutional amendment until the end of January. The Right accepted PASOK’s proposal immediately, knowing that the strike couldn’t go on for another three months.
On that basis, Karamanlis, the right-wing prime minister—who up to that point had bombarded the protesters with tear gas and pepper spray at every Wednesday demonstration—asked for “dialogue” with the striking teachers. He proposed a compromise that the teachers, exhausted financially by six weeks of striking, accepted.
Although the compromise cannot be called a victory, no working person in Greece feels defeated. Although at first a few right-wing newspapers claimed that this was the Greek version of the defeat of the coal miners strike by Thatcher in Great Britain, in just a few days this punditry was completely abandoned. Through their struggle, the teachers have won a massive and democratically organized union and the high esteem of working class people.
Meanwhile, the government has been forced to change policy: It has abandoned the open attacks, is seeking dialogue with the unions, and has suspended all neoliberal measures for the economy until after the next elections. The privatization in education, which looked like a cakewalk when it was begun, since both the right wing and social democracy were in agreement, has turned into a wild adventure.
Nevertheless, the strike could have won. What was missing during the six stirring weeks of the strike was a Left that could stand up to the demands of the struggle, organize popular support for the strike, broaden the strike front, and, most importantly, answer politically the propaganda and maneuvering of the government, the media, and the bosses. A large section of the people—including a section of the base of social democracy—are now conscious of the need for such a force.
In mid-October, municipal and county elections took place in Greece. The Coalition of the Radical Left introduced as its candidate for mayor in Athens a young activist known only through his involvement in the Greek Social Forum. Before the elections, opinion polls suggested that he would carry around 3 percent of the vote. On Election Day, he got 11 percent, surpassing by far the KKE candidate. This is not an isolated phenomenon. All across the country, people are searching for a new Left willing to fight government policies and open the way for overthrowing neoliberalism, war, and racism.
The great teachers’ strike will have its follow up. As was noted by Workers Left (published by the International Workers Left) despite the paralysis of social democracy, the right-wing government of Karamanlis now has an opponent: An opposition that is being built in the streets.
Antonis Davanellos is a member of the editorial committee of the Greek socialist newspaper, Workers Left, and a member of International Workers Left (DEA). Article translated by George Vouro and Elizabeth Terzakis.
Hoffa’s win is members’ loss
The Teamsters union is in deep crisis
By JOE ALLEN
TEAMSTER GENERAL President James P. Hoffa overwhelmingly defeated reformer Tom Leedham for the leadership of the Teamsters union in an election held by mail ballot last November.
Hoffa, the incumbent leader of the union for the past seven years, won 65 percent of the vote to Leedham’s 35 percent, with 21 percent of the Teamsters’ 1.4 million members voting. The percentage of votes received by Hoffa and Leedham are virtually identical to the results for both candidates in their last contest in 2001. For many reformers the election was a hard and difficult defeat, given the disastrous policies of the Hoffa administration for large sections of the Teamster membership; many believed that the election, at the very least, would be a lot closer than the previous two.
The crushing defeat of Leedham, the secretary-treasurer of a small local union in Portland, Oregon, raises serious questions about both his future as the standard bearer for reformers in international elections and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the grassroots reform organization that provides the bulk of activists for reform campaigns.
Soon after Hoffa’s reelection, United Parcel Service (UPS), the largest Teamster employer in the country and the largest transportation company in the world, pushed through a pension benefit cut of 30 percent for retired members of Local 804 in New York. Local 804 was once the flagship Teamster local at UPS—the first local to achieve the “25-and-out” benefits plan, it was led for many years by Ron Carey, the first reform leader of the Teamsters, who was banned from the union by a federal government orchestrated witch-hunt following the UPS strike of 1997.
UPS’s choice of Local 804 for their first post-election attack is more than symbolic. It clearly shows their intention of shredding the patchwork system of pension funds built up by the employers and Teamsters over the last half century. UPS is the largest single contributor to Teamster pension funds and began pushing through severe cuts in the Central States and Western Conference pension funds several years ago in cooperation with Hoffa’s pension trustees.
This is not because UPS is facing bankruptcy. On the contrary, UPS is one of the most consistently profitable corporations in the United States. It is well known for its brown delivery trucks that are a familiar sight on America’s streets and its “What can Brown do for you?” commercials. UPS has been on a massive buying spree over the last decade, purchasing railroads, shipping lines, and U.S. military installations in the Philippines to facilitate its massively expanding operations in China.
In the U.S., its most important acquisition was Overnite Transport in 2005, now known as UPS Freight, for $1.25 billion. Overnite was the sixth largest non-union freight company in the country, and a well-documented violator of labor laws that defeated the Teamsters in a three-year strike begun in 1999. UPS is clearly building up the non-union wing of its operation in order to seriously weaken the presence of the Teamsters at their company. Hoffa’s much touted agreement with UPS for one “card-check” election at an Indianapolis UPS Freight hub, should not confuse anyone about the direction of labor-management relations at Big Brown.
The Teamsters, like the bulk of the United States’ major unions, is in deep crisis. Once the largest single union in the U.S. with more than 2.2 million members in the mid-1970s, it lost nearly half of its members in the frenzy of deregulation, mergers, and union-busting starting in the early 1980s. Up until then the union had for decades dominated the industry, which was a patchwork of local and regional trucking companies. Today the battlefield has completely flipped in the opposite direction, with behemoth corporations dominating the landscape, led by UPS. The Teamsters lag so far behind in these developments it is hard to know whether the current political forces in the union—the Hoffa administration or the reformers—will ever be able to catch up to them. This is exacerbated by the highly corrupt and pro-business James P. Hoffa, son of the notorious and mob-murdered Jimmy Hoffa. In May 2000, Transportation Topics, one of the major industry magazines, ran an article about UPS’s cozy relationship with Hoffa called “In love with Hoffa.”
Given all of this, why were Leedham and the reformers so easily routed in the election? The most obvious answer is that Hoffa has the support of virtually the entire officialdom of the union and, as a result, was able to put together a campaign war chest of over $3 million compared to Tom Leedham’s “Strong Contracts, Good Pensions” slate’s campaign treasury of $300,000—largely funded by rank-and-file contributions. It is also true, as TDU points out, that Hoffa can’t claim a mandate for his policies after receiving only 13 percent of the actual votes of the Teamster membership.
The flip side of this, however, is that TDU, which was the key factor in electing Ron Carey in 1991 and reelecting him in 1996, today can only get 8 percent of the votes of Teamster members. Since the witch-hunt of Carey, reformers have been pushed to the margins of the union, despite some gains in the South. The heart of the union remains in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. If TDU doesn’t have a big victory in one of the union locals in one of these major cities in the near future, it will remain a marginal force.
In the meantime, the key struggle for the survival of the union will be at UPS. Hoffa pushed for and got “early negotiations” for a National Master UPS contract (not due to expire until 2008). Despite Hoffa’s plea in the election for the largest possible vote for himself to show the companies that the members are behind his leadership, UPS’s post-election behavior clearly shows that they believe they have a leadership that they can roll over. It will be up to the rank and file of the union to show UPS otherwise.
Joe Allen is a former member of UPS Local 705
Walkout at Tar Heel
A wildcat by hog workers takes on the anti-immigrant “no-match” campaign
By SHAUN HARKIN and NICOLE COLSON
IN NOVEMBER, an estimated 1,000 workers at the Smithfield pork-processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., walked off the job in a two-day wildcat strike. Management sparked the walkout by firing seventy-five workers on the grounds that their Social Security numbers didn’t match federal government data. More than half of the workforce is Latino, many of whom are recent immigrants, and nearly 40 percent are African American. A majority of participants in the walkout were Latinos, but some Black and white workers also participated in the walkout. Workers went back on the job after winning significant concessions, including the reinstatement of all the fired workers and no penalization of any of the strikers.
Smithfield, which took in a net profit of $172.7 million in fiscal year 2006, and was named four years in a row as one of “America’s Most Admired Companies” by Fortune magazine, pays a base wage of $8.60 an hour at its Tar Heel plant, forcing its employees to work long hours in dangerous conditions under constant threat of harassment.
“The company basically has an assembly line set-up,” says Keith Ludlum, who works the livestock line at Tar Heel,
and the human beings are treated like machines. They’re sitting there for eight hours a day, and they don’t even have the chance to wipe their brow, because they’re covered in hog feces or blood. They’re drinking from water coolers that other workers have been at who are covered in hog feces and hog blood.… They’re hard-working people, and they are being abused and mistreated.Ludlum describes how, in response to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union in 1994, Tar Heel’s management harassed, interrogated, beat, and fired workers to intimidate them. Until 2005, Smithfield was allowed under a special state law to maintain its own private police force and a special holding cell onsite at the Tar Heel plant. Smithfield officers were allowed to carry company-issued guns and bullets, as well as concealed weapons.
The company has a history of pitting whites, Blacks, and Latinos against each other, giving the few whites jobs as mechanics or supervisors, and giving the bloody line work to Blacks and Mexican immigrants. The company brought in anti-union consultants in 1997, according to a Human Rights Watch report, who “told Latino workers that the union was dominated by Black workers” bent on taking Latino workers’ jobs, and told Black workers the reverse. After the walkout, management was rumored to be saying that Blacks were going to strike to get the Latino workers out.
Yet what was significant about the walkout was that it helped create a greater sense of unity inside the plant. “I think right now, the workers are at a point where they’re together,” says Emma Herrera, executive director of the UFCW’s Eastern North Carolina Worker Center in Red Springs. “They know from now on that they have to do it together. And they’ve been doing it, but the company has been working hard to divide the groups inside. Workers before that weren’t sure about the union have learned now that they have to do something together.”
Smithfield management set the walkout in motion by firing Latino workers for “no-match” letter discrepancies, claiming that if they didn’t take action they would stand in violation of federal laws. Social Security Administration (SSA) no-match letters are sent to employers to notify them if there is a discrepancy between the Social Security number provided by a worker and what exists on file.
A 2003 study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago explains the role no-match letters play:
The U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) began its employer “no-match letter” program to help properly allocate the billions of dollars of contributions collected from workers with incorrectly filed Social Security numbers (SSNs). Under the program, SSA sends letters to employers every year that identify the Social Security numbers of employees who do not match names or numbers in SSA’s records….Earlier this year the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attempted to pass into law new requirements that employers must fire employees who cannot rectify the discrepancy within sixty days. The law wasn’t passed but the DHS is encouraging companies to voluntarily commit to a pilot program anyway. Some 11,000 companies have already agreed to do so.
Although they were not designed as a mechanism of immigration enforcement, employer no-match letters inadvertently have become de facto immigration enforcement tools. Employers have fired thousands of workers identified in no-match letters, assuming that they are undocumented immigrants. In addition, many workers identified in the letters have quit their jobs out of concern that immigration authorities may raid their workplace. Further evidence indicates that many employers have used the letters to undermine workers’ right to organize and to cut pay and benefits.
Fearing penalties and raids for having undocumented workers on the books many employers will fire workers even though it is not required by law and even if they will face serious disruptions to production. For companies like Smithfield that are battling union drives or contract campaigns, it is a perfect intimidation device.
According to activists in the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, the SSA under the direction of DHS is planning to send out millions of no-match letter notifications starting early in 2007. Thus, the potential for this to create terror in immigrant communities in the coming months shouldn’t be underestimated.
Across the country there is already an escalation in the use of no-match letters by employers as a justification for firing undocumented workers. In recent weeks Cintas Corporation, the nationwide uniform company where UNITE HERE has an organizing campaign, fired 400 workers due to no-match letters. In Chicago, Jays Foods is planning to fire 120 long-term workers and Stockyard Meat Company another thirty. And these are just a few of the more publicized cases.
The Smithfield strike is a model for how no-match letters can be fought, but most undocumented workers are likely to face isolation and won’t have the backing of an ongoing union campaign. Activists across the country are beginning to organize rapid response networks capable of mobilizing to protest against no-match terminations and raids in defense of immigrant workers.
The wildcat strike came at a moment when the absence of mass demonstrations that characterized the explosive emergence of the immigrant rights movement last spring led some commentators to conclude the movement had disappeared. Even supporters of immigrant rights have felt disoriented by the apparent quietude and the lack of a serious challenge to the Senate’s passage of the Secure Border Act of 2006 authorizing the construction of a 700-hundred-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexican border on the eve of the midterm elections.
However, the Smithfield walkout is one manifestation of how the spring 2006 immigrant rights mobilizations have, and will continue to have, reverberations among immigrant workers in unexpected but important ways.
And Smithfield is a concrete example of the fusion of the immigrant rights struggle with the project of rebuilding the labor movement and points to the natural potential for both of these struggles to move forward, together. However, the issues underlying this courageous and inspiring action also underline the very immediate and significant challenges both struggles face.
Shaun Harkin is a member of the March 10 immigrant rights coalition in Chicago. Nicole Colson is a reporter for Socialist Worker.