Labor Movements

views updated

Labor Movements

The history of organized labor in Latin America is rich and varied. From the mid-nineteenth century to the present, workers have sought to further their collective interest by forming unions, by taking direct action, by supporting friendly candidates, and by forming their own political groupings. These efforts have met with uneven success, although at times workers have wrested concessions from their employers and played an important role in shaping national history. Overall, labor's trajectory can be divided into roughly three somewhat overlapping periods. During the first period, spanning roughly 1850 to 1870 until the 1930s, workers' organizations emerged. Workers organized their first significant collective actions and, for the most part, took a marked oppositional and apolitical stance toward the state and toward both the dominant agrarian and the emerging industrial elites. During the second period, covering the 1920s through the decades after World War II, labor became increasingly incorporated into the political and economic equation, and political parties formed that catered to organized labor and workers but often sought to control both, albeit not always successfully. Finally, the 1960s to the present make up a third period, when the traditional labor movement lost much of its power owing to military takeovers and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies.


Sometime after 1850, urban workers emerged as a group demanding notice in most Latin American societies, although the population remained predominantly rural. This phenomenon coincided with Latin America's entrance into the world economy as an exporter of primary products and importer of manufactured goods, which resulted in a growth of local industry and of urban areas. Rail, port, and mine workers were among the first to organize, although artisans preceded them in many cases. Transport, dock, and mine workers could strike serious blows at local economies by blocking exports and imports. Although such action in the export sector drew immediate hostile attention from the state, workers sometimes managed considerable gains through concerted action.

In the rapidly growing cities there was a large body of artisans who, under pressure from the increasing subordination of labor to the modern large factory, often banded together. With some exceptions, such as the Brazilian textile industries, most enterprises remained small (less than five people), as did the percentage of factory workers within the total numbers of salaried individuals. A modern industrial proletariat really formed only after 1930. Textile factories usually represented the largest enterprises, but flour mills and meatpacking plants in Argentina also employed several hundred people, as did mining companies in Mexico and Chile. Construction, which was at best part-time or seasonal work, also provided considerable employment.


Many factors, however, hindered organizing. In most countries, a substantial jobless pool existed. In Buenos Aires 10,000 men might appear for the morning shape-up at the docks. São Paulo imported immigrants for the coffee plantations, and the Argentine government recruited in Europe. Competition kept wages close to survival level and jobs at a premium, but skilled workers fared much better. Many immigrants, particularly in the period 1880 to 1910 in the more dynamic Southern Cone economies, for example, thought that they could advance from worker to owner to entrepreneur. Just enough did so to keep the hope alive, but opportunities closed off as industry demanded more capital and technology after 1900. Local bourgeoisies proved intransigent toward workers' demands and organization. These attitudes stemmed from the competitiveness of relatively small industrial establishments and from the fact that owing to lack of mechanization, the wage bill represented a hefty percentage of costs. Ideological and institutional coercion had not yet fully developed, and so repression often proved to be the standard response of owners and the state to workers' movements. Agrarian elites, who were not always directly concerned with urban affairs, agreed that repression was the best answer to agitation.

Foreign ownership of most major export industries (railroads in Argentina, mines in Chile and Mexico, as well as important textile plants in Mexico and Peru, for example) served as a rallying point for workers, particularly native ones. Although workers in foreign enterprises occasionally won a sympathetic hearing from local governments, in most cases the state defended foreign capital as fiercely as local capital. In Brazil, where planters became involved in industrial and commercial activities after the 1890s, a state policy of repression emerged, though its ferocity varied from area to area. Elsewhere, when workers did not directly threaten the export sector, they sometimes could avoid immediate state action. Nevertheless, there were many instances of heavy repression in the period up to 1930, including massacres after strikes in Veracruz at the Orizaba and Río Blanco textile mills (1906 and 1907, respectively) and in the mining areas around Iquique, Chile (1907). Numerous workers and their families lost their lives in these encounters, perhaps more than a thousand in the latter incident.

Other factors pressured workers and their organizations. Governments protected strikebreakers, banned and forcefully dispersed meetings, closed union halls, shut down working-class newspapers, and used agents provocateurs. On the pretext that foreigners lay behind growing labor unrest, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Uruguay all passed laws allowing for expulsion of foreign-born persons, who formed a significant part of working-class leadership, for disturbing the social peace. Many of the first labor laws, which appeared before 1920, were designed to control rather than protect workers, but some also arose from Catholic social action, which advocated Sunday rest and protection for women and children. Exceptionally, in Uruguay, President José Batlle y Ordóñez (1903–1907, 1911–1915) passed comprehensive social legislation, including social services and protective measures, as part of his larger program that courted popular support to counter the viselike grip of the old agrarian oligarchy.

In countries with the most advanced economies, immigrants, mostly Italians and Spaniards (Portuguese in Brazil), formed the bulk of the urban working class. In Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil, for example, this foreign influence had numerous consequences. Some immigrants brought previous labor-movement experience, though most newcomers possessed little political consciousness. Many immigrants wanted only to make money and return home, and so steered clear of potentially troublesome activities. A refusal by many to become citizens hurt strategies that depended upon working-class votes. Ethnic diversity led to rivalries between foreigners and between foreigners and nationals. Those born abroad became subject to nationalistic campaigns and right-wing jingoism, typified by paramilitary right-wing organizations such as the Argentine Liga Patriótica, which emerged after 1910.


Workers achieved much before 1930. Living and working conditions helped mobilize people. Workers lived in abysmal circumstances, even compared with salaried or middle-sector employees. Lack of social services and extensive slums were prevalent, and led to alarming public-health problems, but large numbers of workers crowded together helped to build a certain sense of solidarity at home as well as at work. Workingclass districts such as La Boca in Buenos Aires and Brás in São Paulo grew into militant centers of activity. Workers in mining camps, mill towns, and plantations developed a similar affinity, often leading to organization. Everywhere, job conditions remained difficult. Owners imposed draconian work rules and applied them arbitrarily. Work hours totaled as much as twelve to sixteen hours a day, six days a week. Few safety measures existed, and occupational diseases represented a serious threat in many industries. Employers fired workers almost at will, particularly if they resisted industrial discipline. Most workers had unstable work histories. The average worker had little or no control over his or her own fate in the labor market, but gravitated both geographically and sectorally to where jobs existed or were rumored to exist. Many workers set up their own small enterprises, failed, then returned to the status of employee. A fortunate few, however, succeeded, giving rise to the proverbial immigrant success story.


Anarchists or utopian socialists controlled the first attempts at organization. Gradually, anarchosyndi-calism emerged as the dominant tendency among activists. All shades of anarchists believed in confronting the state and not participating in traditional politics. Later, there emerged a syndicalist current that assigned primacy to unions but concentrated upon immediate economic gains. Strongest in Argentina and Brazil, syndicalists negotiated with governments when necessary. A reformist socialism, akin to that of Europe, also attracted some workers, particularly in the Southern Cone. Because it was dedicated to electoral politics, however, the fact that immigrants could not vote weakened its appeal. Catholic-leaning organizations and independent unions that took no set positions also arose. Most workers, even those who were unionized, probably held no set ideological positions, but acted on the basic desire to improve their living and working conditions however possible. Workers often bargained collectively and sometimes won partial or full victories. Strikes, however, proved to be the most common and effective form of direct action. Mostly these occurred in one or more shops, but sometimes they affected a whole industry and occasionally turned into generalized movements that briefly closed major cities, such as Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the early 1900s and São Paulo in the following decade. Workers also used slowdowns, boycotts, and other tactics to gain their ends.


Until 1920, the strongest labor movements had emerged in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico. Unions, however, existed in almost every country except for primarily agrarian nations, where only a few artisans organized. In Argentina, Chile, and Brazil significant federations formed, grouping important numbers of unions and workers. The largest of them, the Argentine syndicalist Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA), claimed 20 to 25 percent of Buenos Aires's workforce by 1918. Despite divisions, particularly between anarchists and syndicalists, the Argentine movement remained numerically the strongest. In Chile miners led the way, along with workers in the larger cities. The militant Partido Obrero Socialista (POS) arose in 1912 and elected its leader, Luis Emilio Recabarren (1876–1924), to Congress, though the elites refused to seat him. In Brazil a national confederation, the Confederação Operária Brasileira (COB), emerged in 1908, hewing to an anarchosyndicalist line, and several general strikes shook both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the following years. In Mexico at least 250 strikes took place during the regime of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911). Also, in some cases, Díaz sided with locals against foreign companies to gain political points. Widespread state repression doomed most of the strikes, but they put social issues squarely on the agenda and undermined Díaz.

Labor and the State

The Mexican Revolution (1910) ushered in a new relationship between labor and the state. Segments of the labor movement, located predominantly in Mexico City, signed a pact in 1915 with the upper-middle-class faction led by Venustiano Carranza (1859–1920) and Álvaro Obregón (1880–1928) under which, in return for support, they could organize freely. But tensions soon arose, and a general strike in Mexico City against unfavorable government policies led to repression that weakened the radical wing of the labor movement and strengthened more collaborationist elements. The Constitution of 1917 incorporated a whole section of labor clauses, but these progressive measures remained largely a dead letter until the 1930s or later owing to a lack of government enforcement. But the document presaged a time when social and labor questions would increasingly become a part of the state's purview throughout Latin America.

After 1917 a close relationship developed between the ruling cliques and labor leaders, such as Luis Morones, who controlled the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM), Mexico's leading labor confederation, which existed with government approval. CROM organized workers and kept more radical elements within the labor movement under check, often aided by state violence. CROM's greatest influence was evident during the 1920s, when its connections allowed it to offer members material benefits. The government often pressured CROM's rivals. This pattern of state-labor collaboration, where power lies with the state, has marked Mexican labor relations ever since. Even today, the relationship between the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the largest labor confederation, the Mexican Confederation of Workers (CTM), continues. The government and the CTM sign annual social pacts that limit wage increases. Although these matched or even outran the pace of inflation during the expansionary 1950s and 1960s, from about 1985 to 1995 workers steadily lost ground. By some estimates, real salaries plummeted as much as 60 percent during that period.


World War I brought substantial economic dislocations that resulted in mass layoffs and rapid inflation throughout Latin America. This situation was reflected in a burst of labor unrest from 1917 to 1920, which included major general strikes and increased organization, often in trades previously nonunionized. Working-class actions in countries such as Colombia, Cuba, Peru, and Uruguay reached new heights. Labor gained a stronger bargaining position owing to the cutoff of imports and to more demand for skilled labor, which helped some workers attain their goals. Most workers generally achieved limited gains, and many experienced defeats. But the unrest prompted politicians and employers to rethink the question of labor relations.

In the 1920s there were several new trends. A postwar depression halted the upsurge in labor activity. The state and ruling groups strengthened the repressive apparatus and rethought strategies to dampen workers' rebellion and protest. Although comprehensive legal controls emerged only after 1930, their roots lie in this period. Governments sought to coopt labor or at least to neutralize it. Mexico and Uruguay led the way, but the same phenomenon appeared in Argentina and Chile, not coincidentally countries where the labor movement proved to be strongest. Some governments promulgated labor codes that regulated work relations and the ways in which workers could organize. States tried to see that these codes effectively governed relations between labor and capital, but they did not always succeed. Increased social legislation represented an attempt to domesticate labor; with better conditions and wages there would be more contented workers, higher productivity, and thus more profits.

Three other developments shaped the 1920s. First, the failure of confrontational strategies eclipsed anarchism and anarchosyndicalism. Second, workers more often sought to bargain with the state and employers and to resort to direct action only in extreme instances. Third, newly formed Communist parties tried to organize a labor movement with long-term revolutionary objectives, and at the same time pursued electoral ends. The rise of Communist parties that won solid working-class constituencies created new splits within the labor movement, and also frightened both agrarian and industrial elites. Communism was yet another divisive ideology—though Communists at times collaborated with others to oppose foreign capital and the capitalist system—and it provided another reason for official repression of any workers' protest that foreign agitators manipulated a well-intentioned local labor force. But the rise of Communism also opened the way for a more systematic analysis of imperialism, which appealed to workers exploited by foreign capital, and even sometimes to local industrialists.

Rural labor was generally unorganized before the 1930s, but the Mexican Revolution had stirred up considerable peasant agitation and the beginnings of organization. Agrarian tenants' movements also arose. In Argentina, for example, they sometimes connected with urban labor. Strictly rural unions remained scarce, but peons often protested forcefully against working conditions. Nonurban workers, other than those outside agribusiness, seldom joined organizations, let alone led collective action. Still, the massive peasant uprising in El Salvador in 1932 and its brutal repression, in which perhaps 30,000 persons perished; strikes on banana plantations in Central America and Colombia in the late 1920s and early 1930s; and the vast uprisings by estate workers across the Caribbean (1931–1938) show that rural workers were not totally passive.


As workers became more organized, politicians, elites, and the Catholic Church all expressed concern over the culture, values, and morals of laborers. Managers in collaboration with public officials often instituted programs to help inculcate "proper behavior." For instance, the Chilean government and mine owners in the first half of the twentieth century felt that workers were violent and drank to excess, creating public disorder and wrecking business efficiency. Believing that families reduced these problems, the El Teniente copper mine in Chile paid wage bonuses to married men. Furthermore, El Teniente offered classes on family, values, and middle-class consumption for women and men in order to maintain a more stable workforce. Often, workers accepted the ideas taught in these programs, but that did not make them a compliant workforce; instead, Chilean miners through organization and strikes sought greater benefits and better working conditions and pay to achieve the middle-class lifestyle.

The question of morals became especially acute as women entered the workplace. In Medellín, Colombia, women in the first decades of the century began working in the textile industry. City officials and religious leaders became concerned that independent women in the workplace would weaken ethics, increase sexual promiscuity, and eventually destroy the family structure of the whole country. Conservatives generally expected women to be mothers and to take care of their homes. To assuage these concerns, a paternalistic capitalism developed to maintain working women's "morality." Factories did not hire married women, and on the shop floor, nuns in Medellín monitored women's behavior, preventing gossip about sex. During the 1920s and 1930s female employees lived in supervised dormitories. Factory owners considered sex outside of marriage a dismis-sible offense. Studies of gender and labor in other Latin American countries have similarly shown that workplace issues went far beyond questions of pay and living conditions, reflecting the critical cultural conflicts of the time.

Scholars also have researched how issues of race shaped worker organization, beliefs, and action. During the mid-twentieth century in Peru, white-collar employees (e.g., bank tellers, retail salespersons, office workers) often defined themselves as white in order to elevate the status of their work. This racial self-identification helped these nonindustrial workers differentiate themselves from mestizos. In Brazil, Afro-Brazilian port workers, when forming an alliance with the state, accused employers and managers of racism. This rhetoric helped Afro-Brazilians establish legitimacy because the federal government wanted to craft a strong national identity based on unity, rather than the country's history of slavery. Latin American workers did not follow general rules regarding race, but racial questions influenced the politics of the workplace.


The Great Depression and World War II accelerated industrialization. The working class expanded markedly and, as immigration slowed, the class became more national. Political parties and politicians courted labor support more seriously after 1930, and particularly after 1945, in response to labor's new strength and in hopes of gaining an ally against their enemies. Mechanisms of control over labor also expanded in terms of labor-relations systems and corporatist controls. Global depression after 1930 generated more worker agitation against deteriorating conditions. Some organizations became more collaborationist and others more militant, with mixed results in terms of permanent gains for workers. Repression, however, remained a major response to workers' unrest. Nonetheless, the years 1930 to 1950 ushered in an era during which organized labor slowly emerged as a new force in society.

The Emerging Movement

The democratic movements that grew across Latin America in the immediate postwar years often included a labor component. After years of containing their frustration during economic depressions and wars, workers sought to recover lost ground, with varied results. The war had been fought in the name of democracy, and workers demanded the fruits of the system. Politicians or political movements often coopted these efforts, giving limited economic benefits or more room to organize in return for state support of labor and workers' votes at election time. Peronism is a classic case. In Argentina, General Juan Domingo Perón emerged as leader of a military junta (1943–1946), and labor rallied to his support, attracted by incentives he had granted as secretary of labor and social welfare. Workers formed the backbone of Perón's electoral bids, and their votes carried him to victory in 1946 and 1952. The Peronist-dominated trade union center Confederación General de Trabajo (CGT), however, remained largely under the control of a bureaucracy pledged to Perón. Workers (even rural ones), at least until 1950, received real gains in terms of social and labor legislation and income. Perhaps most important, they gained a sense of dignity and of their collective power. After 1950, when the economy turned down, workers took the brunt of cuts that eroded support for the increasingly dictatorial Perón. Despite this loss, however, the Peronist Party still received the support of a substantial majority of Argentine workers, even after Perón's ouster in 1955; labor did not forget the gains won under him.

In Mexico strikes by white-collar unions and electrical and rail workers in the 1950s and early 1960s led to repression and more state control over the CTM and other labor organizations. There was also significant postwar labor activity in Brazil. From 1945 to 1947 a labor upsurge sparked by Getúlio Dornelles Vargas's Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (PTB) and the Partido Comunista Brasileiro (PCB) was condemned by upper- and middle-class politicians, who outlawed the PCB and prohibited its elected candidates from office. Nevertheless, Vargas, running as a populist with an appeal to labor, won the Brazilian presidental election in 1950. But labor autonomy remained limited, and docile leaders headed most major unions, although independent elements continued to operate. Vargas's death in 1954 failed to sever labor's links to populist politicians, but the next regimes were markedly less favorable toward workers and unions. Like Perón in Argentina, Vargas, despite his control over the state, could not simply manipulate labor at will. Even with imbalances in power, a degree of negotiation always existed between the two sides.

In Bolivia, the revolution in 1952 depended heavily upon the support of militant miners' unions hewing to leftist doctrines. The Confederación Obrera Boliviana (COB) demanded and received cogovernment of the mines, and the minister of mines came from labor's ranks. Although the ruling party, Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR), moved steadily rightward, and miners lost their power owing to both economic and political factors, their unions continued to exercise influence at the national level until the tin industry's collapse in the 1980s. In fact, COB became the main vehicle for labor and leftist politics, both in opposition and in government, as during the brief regime of Juan José Torres (1970–1971), when the Asamblea Popular (Popular Assembly) functioned in place of traditional parliamentary bodies.


The decades after 1950 brought accelerated industrial growth and urbanization. The working class rapidly increased in numbers and became a more important actor at the political level. This situation, in turn, reflected a process of institutionalization designed to contain industrial conflict and mobilize support for elite-led political parties and governments. Organized workers often received or won economic benefits as well as favorable social legislation in return for their support. Real wages for workers in more dynamic industrial sectors probably tended upward, though patterns varied country by country. In Mexico, for example, the ruling PRI tightly controlled organized labor. It accomplished this end through a policy of divide and rule (more than a thousand unions existed by the 1960s), keeping white-collar and peasant unions separate from blue-collar ones; a forceful imposition of corrupt leadership; repression of independent actions; and the granting of real wage gains. Labor also became a battleground between contending political parties and competing ideologies. Occasionally, one party captured the bulk of labor support, as in the cases of Peronism in Argentina and Acción Democrática (AD) in Venezuela. But in Colombia, Catholics and Communists vied for workers' allegiance. In Peru the Peruvian Aprista Party (PAP/APRA) and the Communists did the same. In Chile Socialists, Communists, Radicals, and Christian Democrats all controlled labor blocs in the 1960s.

In Cuba labor was divided between the centrist Auténticos, aided by government intervention from 1944 to 1952, and the Communists, hurt by repression during that same period. After 1952 the Twenty-sixth of July labor movement and Communist-influenced unions, both of which played a role in the struggle against Fulgencio Batista, formed the unified Confederación de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC). Unions continued to represent workers' interests, but within the bounds of the Revolution, and with often mixed results.

In Chile, organized labor had an important opportunity to see many of its goals realized. Workers solidly backed the Popular Unity ticket, which elected a Socialist, Salvador Allende, to the presidency in 1970. His early policies benefited the working class in material and organizational terms, but when his nationalization measures slowed, militant workers forced his hand by seizing factories. Eventually, they formed worker-run zones (cordones industriales), but the reactionary military coup in 1973 found labor almost totally unprepared to defend the regime in any significant manner.

During the 1960s and 1970s there was also marked growth of rural unions in several countries. Agricultural workers' and peasants' unions, for example, became an important segment of the labor movement in Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Central America. Sometimes national federations emerged, as in Chile, Brazil, and Peru. In Mexico an official confederation existed. Despite this phenomenon, however, the vast majority of Latin American rural workers remained unorganized.


By the 1960s, before the military takeovers that swept across Latin America, the ranks of organized workers had risen markedly in almost every country, from some 4.5 million in 1945 to 6 to 7 million in 1960 to 1970. The greatest militancy in the labor movement had shifted from transport or dock workers to those in the modernized sectors, such as the metal trades, but not mining and oil. Public-sector unions also grew as government bureaucracy expanded. Labor in most countries had become firmly allied with or tied to specific political parties such as AD in Venezuela, APRA in Peru, Peronism in Argentina, and the PRI in Mexico. These ties created tensions between political platforms and workers' demands. The question became, to what degree should workers bow to the agenda set by non-working-class politicians and abandon labor autonomy? Labor had become a significant actor not only because it influenced or controlled votes, but also because it could threaten to disturb political stability, and that could bring down governments.

The military takeovers from 1964 through the early 1980s brought reactionary forces to power. The military deemed labor organizations subversive and acted to curb their power, usually by force, as in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. In Brazil, during 1967 not a single major strike took place, but in Argentina, the military governments after 1966 failed to crush the Peronist resistance in the unions, leading to Perón's ill-fated return in 1974. A second round of military dictatorship ending in 1983 fared no better. Everywhere, however, military rule weakened labor by arresting, torturing, and exiling leaders and middle-level organizers.


The 1970s and 1980s brought other new patterns. First, neoliberal economic policies in conjunction with built-in structural imbalances resulted in a marked shrinkage of the industrial sector. Privatization also reduced the number of blue- and white-collar jobs in the state sector. This situation weakened once strong industrial and public sector unions and labor's traditional bargaining power. The International Monetary Fund mandated austerity programs in a dozen countries, drastically lowering working-class living standards. Despite general strikes against such programs in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, and elsewhere, almost nowhere did labor and its allies ultimately succeed in changing economic policies, though occasionally it did postpone or ameliorate them. Second, explosive informal sector growth changed the composition of the working class. Informal sectors proved notoriously difficult to organize because they had no locus of work. Many people opposed collective action, considering themselves to be individual entrepreneurs. Even in cases where unions emerged within the sector, such as that of street vendors in La Paz, they proved fragile and transient. Third, in countries where the military ruled over a long period, years of clandestine or severely limited activity for labor and for progressive political parties served to weaken the traditional links between the two. As a result, labor emerged into the period of redemocratization perhaps less powerful but more independent, opening the possibility that it could forge a more truly autonomous path.


At the start of the 1990s labor appeared to be at a crossroads. Traditionally strong sectors had weakened numerically. In Peru, for example, where a once vibrant labor movement had played a major role in forcing the military out of power in 1980, by 1991 it looked powerless against the strong antilabor policies of the government of Alberto Fujimori. In Argentina a "Peronist" president pursued antilabor measures, and in Mexico the long-term collaboration between the PRI and the CTM seemed to be on the verge of collapse, with labor receiving fewer benefits. But in Brazil, as a result of the massive strikes led by metallurgical workers in the state of São Paulo in the 1970s, a new labor party had formed. Hewing to a social-democratic position, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) soon turned to national politics. Its candidate, the charismatic Luís Inácio Lula da Silva ("Lula"), ran a strong second in the presidential elections of 1990 and 1994, and the PT even captured the city of São Paulo in the first campaign. Lula eventually won the presidency in 2002 and was reelected in 2006. Some on the Left have accused Lula of not enacting significant change, but he still remains widely popular with the poor and working classes.

By the mid-1990s the immediate prospects for Latin American labor seemed far from rosy. Widespread and continuing neoliberal programs undercut unions, and often class solidarity, through massive layoffs and drastic cuts in the public sector. Increased competition in newly formed free-trade areas (such as NAFTA and Mercosur) led companies to downsize and, at least in the latter area, resulted in massive flows of labor from low- to high-wage areas. This trend eroded pay scales in high-wage jobs. After thirteen years, NAFTA in 2007 produced a mixed record for Mexican labor. In northern Mexico, where foreign companies set up factories called maquiladoras, new employment opportunities both increased and offered limited opportunities for upward mobility. Established in the early 1970s, these manufacturing facilities have hired mostly women workers, and prohibited union organizing. The prospect of jobs at one of these plants continues to draw migrants, but nongovernmental organizations have found human-rights violations, poor working conditions, and weak labor rights enforcement in this industrial sector. In contrast to the north, southern Mexico continues to be a major source of immigration to the United States because it has seen little development since the mid-1990s. Informal labor (without security) continues to grow rapidly in Mexico with free trade. Nonunionized labor has also increased in Mexico: Wal-Mart is the country's largest employer. Although it affords few labor rights, a Wal-Mart job brings stability and a better salary than the typical informal-market job.

The rest of Latin America, likewise, presents a conflicting picture of neoliberalism. With globalization, generally there has been increased job insecurity and weaker social safety nets. Yet, greater trade has created new jobs and been a source of economic growth. The regional trading pact Mercosur in South America established new nearby markets so that Latin American countries do not have to rely primarily on Europe and North America consumption. Also, with global trade, Latin American countries have found new markets and investors in Asia. By 2007 Latin American countries saw a small but noticeable increase in the middle class, including white- and blue-collar workers. Still, these gains remain precarious. This contradictory data regarding neoliberal policies ultimately does not justify the idealistic predictions of pro-trade economists, nor does it completely validate the critics' negative images of worker despair and exploitation.

Globalization also has increased labor migration. In Argentina and Chile, Bolivian migrants have formed a new underclass with few legal protections. Many Latin American workers have migrated to the United States, both legally and illegally. Undocumented workers receive below-average pay and are subject to substandard working conditions with little recourse. Usually they have been ignored by Mexican politicians, but Vicente Fox (2000–2006), the first opposition candidate to win the presidency in seventy years, became a vocal advocate of Mexican migrants and migrant-labor rights in the United States. U.S. unions, also once antagonistic to foreign labor, have increasingly supported immigration reform, hoping to unionize foreign labor. Although efforts to work out legislation to legalize millions of undocumented Hispanic workers have gained public support in the United States, in 2007 Congress had not gathered sufficient votes to pass such reform. Whether a deal passes or not, Spanish American labor migration has transformed many U.S. cities, with Spanish now a prominent language in much of the country, and a cash-paying population that helps the local economy.

In the 1990s politicians discovered that controlling rampant inflation, which includes holding down wages and benefits, wins more votes than pro-labor platforms. As in the case of the Peronist Party in Argentina and the ruling center-left coalition in Chile, even traditionally labor-friendly parties have distanced themselves from unions. Almost everywhere, labor finds itself on the defensive. Only in Brazil, where the PT remains a significant force, and in Uruguay, where many unions are allied with the Frente Amplio (a progressive electoral coalition that won over 30 percent of the vote in the 1994 elections), do things look more hopeful. By the twenty-first century, neoliberalism's downsides had provoked popular resistance and helped leftist candidates return to office. With the general weakness of organized labor, new, diverse, and less cohesive coalitions protested economic dislocation and demanded new policies. After the Argentine government devalued its currency and defaulted on its public debt in 2001, a mix of unemployed middle-class workers, small-scale entrepreneurs, and unorganized workers engaged in large protests that brought down the government. Néstor Kirchner became Argentina's president in 2003 by promising greater social services for the unemployed and increased equality. Rural labor maintains a critical political role. The Movimiento Sem Tierra (MST) has expropriated and redistributed large agricultural estates throughout Brazil and pressed Lula da Silva for land and housing.

The rise of this new Left has not meant unequivocal support for unionized employees. Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez won on a leftist platform, promising to usher in a new era of socialism, and the poor and nonunion laborers have clearly benefited from Chávez's redistributive policies. But the well-off, conservative oil workers' union generally opposed Chávez and his platform, and when the petroleum unions went on strike in 2003, Chávez eventually put down their protest. Neither has the Left dominated the political scene. The leftist candidate in Mexico lost the 2006 elections by a small margin. Even leftist presidents such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile maintained promarket policies, albeit with a greater emphasis on the humane treatment of labor.

Despite more sympathetic governments, workers must formulate new strategies to meet the challenges of the early twenty-first century and beyond. As prime victims of the restructuring of local and global capital, they must broaden the appeal of their movements to include new groups, such as those in the informal sector, women, Afro-Latin Americans, and even the unemployed. Furthermore, as capital internationalizes, labor organizations must do the same. Indeed, some dialogue between workers inside the free-trade areas has already taken place, with the idea of increasing cooperation between national movements.

See alsoOrganizations (under individual countries).


Bergquist, Charles. Labor in Latin America: Comparative Essays on Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Farnsworth-Alvear, Ann. Dulcinea in the Factory: Myths, Morals, Men, and Women in Colombia's Industrial Experiment, 1905–1960. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

French, John, ed. Latin American Labor Studies Bibliography. Vols. 1-4. Miami: Florida International University, 1989–1993.

Garza Toledo, Enrique de la. Sindicatos y nuevos movimientos sociales en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, 2005.

González Casanova, Pablo, ed. Historia del movimiento obrero en América Latina. 4 vols. Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1984–1985.

Hall, Michael, and Hobart Spalding. "The Urban Working Class and Early Latin American Labour Movements, 1880–1930." In The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 4, edited by Leslie Bethell. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Klubock, Thomas Miller. Contested Communities: Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile's El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904–1951. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Murillo, Maria Victoria. Labor Unions, Partisan Coalitions, and Market Reforms in Latin America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Parker, David S. The Idea of the Middle Class: White-Collar Workers and Peruvian Society, 1900–1950. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

Roxborough, Ian. "Labor Since 1930." In The Cambridge History of Latin America, Vol. 6, Part 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Spalding, Hobart A. Organized Labor in Latin America: Historical Case Studies of Workers in Dependent Societies. New York: New York University Press, 1977.

                                     Hobart A. Spalding

                                          Byron Crites

About this article

Labor Movements

Updated About content Print Article