The Uruguayan ruling class made its first big move against Tabare Vazquez’s centre-left government by launching a lockout in the goods transport industry on Monday of last week.
This is the latest episode of tension between the government, employers and workers. Dozens of strikes and protests have shaken the country during the last few months.
The employers’ associations and the right wing are screaming about a “union dictatorship”.
The Frente Amplio government, a coalition of liberals, nationalists, socialists, communists and Trotskyists, tried to calm the right wing down by attempting to limit the right to strike.
But workers’ resistance defeated this plan.
The unions’ militancy has grown along with their members. Union membership in Uruguay has grown from to 120,000 to 240,000 in the last 18 months. Membership has now reached 22 percent of the labour force.
The government proposed a wage rise of 3.5 to 5.5 percent. But beverage factory workers won an 18.5 percent rise from Brazilian corporation Ambev and Coca-Cola.
Metal and plastic workers were ready to occupy workshops and factories, when the employers offered to give them a 12 percent rise. This is being repeated in sector after sector. The government has also tried to get a free trade agreement with the US.
But two half-day general strikes and protests by activists and left wing MPs forced it to suspend the agreement.
At the beginning of the year owners and strikebreakers violently evicted workers who had occupied a tannery.
Hundreds of workers arrived the next day from other factories. Together with the workers’ union leadership they besieged the plant and expelled the strikebreakers.
The employers made their first general response against this movement last week by locking out workers in the goods transport industry.
This led to a shortage of petrol and food through the country. The next day the unions called a half-day general strike against the lockout and “in defence of democracy”.
This mobilised thousands of industrial workers in the streets of the capital Montevideo. They surrounded the parliament.
The government declared the goods transport industry as an “essential service” on Wednesday of last week. It promised to seize the trucks that didn’t return to work, forcing the right and the employers’ associations to retreat.
The Vazquez government is moderate, but it seems to have been influenced by the rank and file struggles of the workers. It is clear that the employers won’t accept the new situation easily.
But at the same time the self-confidence of the workers continues to grow. There will be new battles to come in Uruguay.
Javier Carles writes for El Mundo al Reves, Socialist Worker’s sister paper in Uruguay.