Bolivia: ‘Workers must be part of process of change’

October 22, 2013
Alfredo Rada, Bolivia’s deputy minister of coordination with the social movements.

Five months ago, I was in Tarija in southern Bolivia taking part in a forum debating the political process in this country, a process we call the “democratic and cultural revolution”.

A participant asked me whether it was possible to deepen this revolution, to make it an economic and social revolution, without the participation of the working class. My immediate response was no.

I said to consolidate a period of transition to building a new form of communitarian socialism, it was absolutely necessary that workers take part. They are needed within the revolutionary social bloc that has managed this process of transformations starting in 2000 in the so-called water war, when the overthrow of neoliberalism began.

It was a very relevant question since at that moment, in May, the mobilisations against the Evo Morales government’s proposed Pensions Act, called by the leaders of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), were at their height.

(The COB demanded a rise in miners’ pensions double what the government offered, which the government said would risk the financial sustainability of its pension scheme. The COB organised strikes and roadblocks, but other workers’ groups organised counter-protests supporting the government. In the end, the COB settled for a slightly higher pension deal than the government first offered.)

Strongly influenced by ultra-left political tendencies organised around the self-described “Workers Party” (PT), the COB committed a monumental error in mobilising its ranks with fevered speeches calling for replacing Morales with “another government”, as a leader of the urban teachers in Santa Cruz put it.

This maximalist orientation led the COB inevitably to defeat, since the strike and mobilisations never won popular support. In the end, the union leaders had to retreat in virtual disarray.

The disaster originated in the characterisation that the ultra-left makes of the present government as “bourgeois and pro-imperialist”. This is a simplistic deceit peculiar to the political currents of an excessively classist and workerist ideological mould.

This blocks them from understanding the varied nature of Bolivia’s social formation, which can only be analysed in terms that combine nation and class.

The process of change is made up of a dynamic deployment of social class struggles within capitalism that are combined, sometimes in a contradictory way, with the historic struggle of the indigenous nations against the internal capitalism.

That is the dialectical nature of this process, in which the anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist tendencies expressed in the political action of exploited classes and oppressed nations make possible the revolutionary transformation of the economic relations of exploitation, the political relations of exclusion and the cultural relations of oppression.

Yet there is always the risk that this course of transformations, as a result of external pressures, internal fragmentation or programmatic concessions, will become exhausted or reversed.

After the conflict with the COB, the government set itself the task of rapidly mending its relationship with the working-class sectors. At the same time, the rank and file workers began to settle scores with the ultra-left leaders within the unions.

That is what has just occurred in the Combined Union of the Mining Workers in Huanuni. This is an emblematic group because Huanuni district, located in the western department of Oruro, has the largest proletarian concentration in the entire country.

More than a year ago, its 4500 miners elected union leaders radically opposed to the government. These leaders led the May strike, blocking roads in Caihuasi and blowing up a bridge there.

Today, weakened and isolated, the ultra-left that was perched for some time in the Huanuni union has been removed by a mass general meeting of the workers. The mass meeting also decided to approve building of a new political unity agreement with the Morales government.

No doubt such repositioning within the workers movement will have a major impact on the future of the PT, since that it has now lost its backbone. The effects will also be felt in the orientation of the Federation of Mining Workers of Bolivia and the COB itself.

Let’s look at another industrial sector — building workers. This is one of the fastest growing sources of employment owing to the expansion in public and private investment in new building construction. Everywhere in Bolivia’s cities, you can see building and housing complexes under way, and with them the hiring of many workers as casual or piecework labour.

But the unions in this sector are weak and dispersed, partly because their leaders tends to be controlled by the big construction companies, but also due to the sparse regulation exercised by the state.

This submissiveness of the unions began to change at the most recent national congress of the Bolivian Construction Workers Union Confederation, which met in the city of Santa Cruz. The building workers elected new union leaders and set their sights on the mandatory organising of all the building workers, teachers and assistants, replacing oral agreements with the bosses with collective contracts in all building projects.

This will also be a means of overcoming the situation of “informal workers”, which is one of the worst legacies of neoliberalism in a country in which less than 20% of the workers are unionised.

Manufacturing workers have been one of the hardest-hit sectors, decimated by the massive layoffs euphemistically labelled “relocations” by Supreme Decree 21060 of August 1985.

The manufacturing sector was subsequently subjected for almost two decades to neoliberal “labour flexibility” policies in order to reduce payloads and increase the profits of capital.

Today, the manufacturing sector is undergoing a rapid reorganising of the unions that has helped to strengthen the General Confederation of Manufacturing Workers of Bolivia. Yet to be consolidated is the organisation of new unions, particularly in the cities of El Alto and Santa Cruz, the two major concentrations of industrial factories in Bolivia.

The importance given to reincorporating workers in the process of change around a common program with the Morales government does not only lie in the fact that it will help to bring together a strong labour base of support. It will also strengthen the anti-imperialist and revolutionary tendencies in the process.

The programmatic agenda could address the following aspects: (1) a new labour law that, while preserving the advances in the present law, will grant new rights to workers; (2) a national campaign of huge union organizsation in all industries now unorganised; and (3) strengthening of the social and communitarian sector of the economy, in alliance with the nationalised state sector.

[Alfredo Rada is Bolivia’s deputy minister of coordination with the social movements. Originally published in Rebelion<./em>, it was translated by Richard Fidler for his blog Life on the Left.]

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