Socialist Worker

One-day general strike brought Uruguay to a standstill

by Javier Carlé
Issue No. 2119

A one-day general strike brought Uruguay to a halt on 20 August. It was strong across industry, transport, education, the health service and even in the shops.

The streets of the capital, Montevideo, were empty. Some of the few scab buses to venture out were attacked.

The strike was called after bosses and the government rejected demands for a pay rise – despite expectations that economic growth for 2008 will be 8 percent.

The government is headed by President Tabaré Vázquez, a member of the Socialist Party and the Broad Front – a coalition dominated by liberals and social democrats, that also includes the far left from Stalinists to Trotskyists.

There was an economic crisis in 2002-2003, but since then the working class has regained a fighting spirit and level of organisation.

As workers have recovered some strikes have been defeated but others won – like the health service workers in 2003. This was the first labour movement victory in a decade.

Such struggles were key to the defeat of right wing parties in the 2004 elections, when they lost power for the first time in 175 years.

Following this most left leaders thought workers would wait for the new government to improve things. But the situation evolved quite differently.

The right’s defeat encouraged the working class. Strikes and occupations mushroomed. Membership of the TUC doubled from 120,000 to 240,000, and many of the new members were from the private sector.

There have been 12 half-day general strikes, a one-day general strike, 90 workplace occupations and rallies of up to 50,000 people since 2005. These have not only focused on disputes over jobs and wages but have also been in opposition to war and free trade.

After the general strike on 20 August, the TUC organised a People’s Congress. It aimed to develop a programme of demands to guide the social movements and trade union struggles.

Some 2,000 delegates representing over 500 organisations took part.

On 19 September workers in the shops and services trade union will strike for the first time in ten years, and on 24 September workers in the shipyard, metal and plastic industries are planning to occupy 100 workshops to demand a collective pay agreement and wage increase.

These are just two examples of the long list of struggles planned over the next few weeks.

The Communists are leading the struggles. Their connection with broad sections of the working class and the leadership they have demonstrated in the struggle has been brilliant.

But their weakness is that they are also part of the government. A section of the party has doubts whether to back workers’ struggles and some favour the return of the right wing parties in office.

The way this contradiction is resolved depends largely on how the struggles progress. The outcome of the struggle will be decisive next year, when the left and right wing parties will clash in national presidential and parliamentary elections.

Victory for the workers would shift the entire political situation to the left. A defeat would mean the opposite.

Javier Carlés is a leading member of the print union and the Uruguayan International Socialist group.

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Tue 16 Sep 2008, 18:05 BST
Issue No. 2119
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