Workers Struggles: The Americas
9 March 1999
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Thirty thousand students, workers and professors took to the streets to denounce the increase in fees at the National University (UNAM) in Mexico City. The students condemned the Zedillo government's multibillion-dollar rescue of big banks and chanted that the children of workers had a right to a university education.
Among the marchers were a thousand members of the electricians union who are fighting against the privatization of electric utilities. There were also contingents from many high schools and from every department in UNAM as well as housewives and young children.
The protesters are demanding the firing of university officials because "they want to sell and privatize the university." The students are threatening to shut down UNAM on March 23 unless the increase in fees is cancelled.
New students will have to pay 100 pesos a term to attend the university, well beyond the reach of working class families in Mexico. In 1998 UNAM's budget was cut by 175 million pesos.
The Ecuadorian government announced that it will militarize power plants and refineries if workers in those industries join a national strike next week. Oil and electrical workers unions have declared that they will leave the nation in the dark if the government does not respond to workers' demands.
The Popular Front, an organization of unions, Indian and other groups, called for a national 48-hour strike next Wednesday. The strike is to protest the austerity policies and privatization plans of the government of Jamil Mahuad, a Christian Democrat.
In response to the government threat, Ivan Narvaez, Oil Worker Federation president, said that in case of militarization "all of the workers will abandon the plants."
This is the latest of a series of protests since the beginning of the year. Claiming that he inherited an economic crisis from a past administration, Mahuad has imposed draconian austerity measures, including the imposition of check cashing taxes, increases in utility bills and budget cuts.
More than 135,000 independent truck drivers announced that they will strike on March 10 against the low fees they get from the trucking companies. The executive director of the Colombian Truck Drivers Association, Ricardo Virviescas, said that the truck drivers are also protesting increases in highway tolls, and legislation that is forcing them to modernize their fleets in the midst of an economic crisis.
Virviescas said that the trucking firms pay less than the fee schedule to which the independent truckers had agreed. He also said that the firms are demanding trucks no smaller than 10 tons and no older than 1990. "Colombian independent truck drivers are broke ... only the very large outfits have been able to import late model trucks."
While the drivers do not intend to block roads, Viviescas acknowledged that the strike will have an impact on foreign commerce. The last truck drivers' strike took place 12 months ago. It involved 100,000 drivers and lasted 10 days, paralyzing cargo transport, including coffee exports.
Three thousand farmers marched through Managua demanding lower taxes and government support for their crops. The protest was led by the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers and the Nicaraguan Coffee Producers Union. The protesters are also seeking the return of $4 million that the government holds as a bond for 28,000 small coffee growers.
The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) is occupying land and buildings in four Brazilian states to demand land for thousands of agricultural workers. The workers have taken over the offices of the Agrarian Reform Institute in Rio Grande do Sul, Matto Grosso, Goias and Para.
Gilberto Portes, leader of the MST, explained that this new campaign will include activities in 16 out of the 26 Brazilian states. The landless workers will engage in occupations, demonstrations and vigils. They also plan to build tents in public squares. The MST demands immediate land for 200,000 people and more resources for the Agrarian Reform Program.
Portes denounced the accord between President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the International Monetary Fund. The accord mandates deep cuts in social spending. "The government cut lines of credit for agrarian reform and resources for adult literacy programs and food distribution to the poor," he said.
The MST is demanding the elimination of the "land bank" which pays cash to oligarchs for their unused land at top market prices. "This is, in effect, a $122 million reward to lazy rich farmers," said Portes.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (NMCS) barred a strike by 6,600 machinists against Lockheed Martin plants in Marietta, Georgia and Palmdale, California March 6, charging a strike against the aerospace and defense contractor would cause "substantial interruption of commerce." The International Association of Machinists has delayed the strike until March 8 to give the NMCS time to organize meetings aimed at preventing a strike.
The previous week workers rejected, by an 89 percent margin, a contract offer which included a 9 percent raise over three years and the reduction of 27 job classifications to 9. The consolidation of job classifications was viewed as a presage to layoffs. Just this January the company axed 280 union and nonunion jobs. The contract also changed the workweek from five 8-hour days to four 10-hour days.
The IAM represents 4,200 workers at the Georgia plant, about half of the workers who produce the C130J cargo aircraft at the facility. The 2,400 workers at the California plant perform maintenance on the Stealth fighter. Another 1,700 workers at Lockheed's plant in Sunnyvale, California ratified the contract. Lockheed Martin has said in the event of a strike it will continue production with supervisors and salaried personnel.
A union official fired for allegedly leading a February 18 walkout at DaimlerChrysler's Toledo, Ohio jeep plant was reinstated March 5. Ken Dudley was fired a week after first shift workers in the plant's body shop refused to work the overtime mandated in the United Auto Workers' contract with the automaker. Workers were angered by heavy workloads which have worsened since the beginning of the year when the company eliminated 150 jobs. Dudley denied involvement in the walkout.
In July 1997 the UAW agreed to reduce the work force from 5,600 to 4,900 in return for a $1.2 billion investment by the company to build the next generation Jeep Cherokee at the plant. At the end of February UAW International President Stephen Yokich attended his first meeting as a member of DaimlerChrsyler's board of directors.
America West Airlines sent letters outlining its latest contract offer to 2,100 flight attendants as the March 19 expiration of a 30-day cooling-off period approaches, bringing the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) and management closer to a possible strike.
The airline's new offer supposedly narrows the economic gap between union and company negotiators to $6 million. Previously the gap was estimated by the AFA at $16.5 million. America West flight attendants are requesting an annual salary of $32,724, up from an industry low of $21,972. Negotiations between the AFA and America West have dragged on for four years. America West made a record $108.6 million in profits last year.
The union has announced it will use random strikes or target specific flights for walkouts once the March 19 deadline passes. Last week it issued letters to Arizona Valley businesses and travel agencies warning of the possibility of strike action.
Members of the United Steelworkers ratified a contract with Asarco Corporation February 26 after a three-week strike at the company's East Helena, Montana lead smelter. Details of the agreement were not available. The 208 workers struck after twice rejecting agreements between union and management, which combined minimal benefit increases with demands for work rule changes and the layoff of 20 workers.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled that officials at the N-S-A smelting plant in Hancock County, Kentucky violated labor laws when it threatened to dismiss members of the United Steelworkers union should they go on strike. The company also was cited for illegally soliciting workers to resign from the union. The USW has been on strike for seven months at N-S-A's aluminum plant.
Three thousand three hundred Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporters, producers, directors and editors last week voted by an 85 percent margin to join 2,000 technicians and designers who have been on strike against the network since February 17.
Members of the Canadian Media Guild have rejected what amounts to the same wage offer which technicians turned down--6 percent over three years. Guild President Lise Lareau also said workloads are an important issue because many workers are doing the jobs of two or three employees since mass layoffs in 1996.
While the strike by technicians has affected local programming across the country, a similar action by guild members would halt production of most programs. A mediator ordered the two sides back to the bargaining table after talks broke down last week.
Contract talks between Canada's largest telephone company, Bell Canada, and the union representing its 9,600 operators and technicians broke off March 5, raising the possibility of a strike by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union.
The dispute centers largely on Bell Canada's plan announced in January to form a new joint venture with Arizona-based call center operator Excell Global Services Inc. to handle much of its operator assistance business. The move would result in significant job losses and wage cuts for current operators. Montreal-based Bell Canada expects to own 51 percent of the new venture, which will be based in Canada.
The company's operators and technicians have been on a work slowdown since March 1, after the union bargaining committee signed the contract but local officials rejected it. About 330 workers at Bell Canada's parts warehousing unit Progistix began strike action March 1.
The union said it is willing to negotiate up to its strike deadline of midnight EST Wednesday, March 10. A strike or lockout would disrupt service to the company's 7 million customers in Ontario and Quebec, Canada's two most heavily populated provinces.
Just two months after its takeover of the Sun Media Corp. newspaper chain, publishing giant Quebecor announced plans to reduce the work force. The $1.4 billion takeover was hailed by the unions at Sun, which opposed a hostile bid by Torstar. Negotiators claim that the higher offer in Quebecor's bid requires the elimination of 100 jobs across eastern Canada and the cancellation of plans to fill 80 vacant positions.