Historically, organized labor in Bolivia had been one of the most politically active and powerful in Latin America. Owing to the importance of mining in the economy, the Trade Union Federation of Bolivian Mineworkers (Federacíon Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia -- FSTMB) has been the backbone of organized labor since the mid-1940s. Before the 1952 Revolution, the FSTMB orchestrated opposition to the three dominant tin barons and led protests against worker massacres.
During the first few days of the revolution, the MNR founded the COB in order to group the FSTMB and the other labor unions under an umbrella organization that would be subordinate to the party. In creating the COB, the MNR was following the example of Mexico's PRI, which effectvely controlled labor through the party's structures. In Bolivia the COB and especially the FSTMB, which controlled labor in the nationalized mining sector, pushed for worker comanagement and cogovernment. Moreover, worker militias were allowed to form freely when the military as an institution was downgraded.
As a result, the COB became an autonomous institution that challenged the primacy of the MNR. Relations between the MNR and the COB were more state to state than party to subordinate labor union. In fact, the COB came to perceive the state as an apparatus that had been appropriated by the MNR politicians and that had to be captured in order to further the interests of the working class. This relationship was to characterize the relations between the COB and the Bolivian state until the mid1980s .
As the COB grew in power, the MNR relied on the reconstructed military to control labor and its militias. With the adoption of a state capitalist model of development that postponed the aspirations of organized labor, the conflict between the state and labor deepened. This conflict climaxed in the mid-1960s under the military government that overthrew the MNR. With the exception of the 1969-71 period, the military initiated a long period of repression that sent the COB into clandestine existence.
When the military called for elections in 1978, the COB, despite being outlawed between 1971 and 1978, reemerged as the only institution able to represent the interests of the working class. Moreover, the COB directed the workers to demand economic, political, and social rights that had been denied to them throughout the military period.
Labor's strength climaxed during Siles Zuazo's second term (1982-85). However, the economic crisis had reached such extremes that in surrendering to the demands of the workers the UDP government only exacerbated the economic situation. Although this period demonstrated the power of the COB to coerce governments, it also led to the downfall of organized labor. As the COB staged hundreds of strikes and stoppages, the economy faltered and public opinion turned against labor.
The MNR government headed by Paz Estenssoro thus was able to impose the NPE on the workers. The COB attempted to stage a strike, but three years of confrontation with the Siles Zuazo government had seriously weakened its ability to mobilize labor. With the support of the pacto, Paz Estenssoro imposed a state of siege that effectively debilitated organized labor. Indeed, the COB's power was undermined so effectively that in the late 1980s it was incapable of staging a general strike.
After 1985 labor's efforts centered on preventing the decentralization and restructuring of Comibol. The restructuring of the nationalized mining sector, especially the mass layoffs, had decimated the FSTMB. As a result, the COB demanded the rehabilitation of Comibol and respect for the rights of labor unions. In September 1986, the FSTMB sponsored a workers' march, dubbed "March for Life," to fend off plans to restructure Comibol, to halt mass firings, and to raise miners' salaries. In response, the government declared a congressionally sanctioned state of siege and immediately imposed Decree 21337, which called for the restructuring of Comibol along the lines originally prescribed in Decree 21060.
The "March for Life" forced government and labor to enter into negotiations, mediated by the Bolivian Bishops Conference (Conferencia Episcopal Boliviano--CEB), that postponed the implementation of Decree 21337. The result was an accord whereby the government agreed that all production and service units targeted for elimination by the decree would remain intact. Moreover, the government agreed that all management decisions in Comibol would be made only after consulting with labor unions. Finally, the MNR government promised to end massive layoffs and agreed that employment would be capped at 17,000 in Comibol.
Because the accord was opposed by radical labor leaders grouped under the so-called Convergence Axis, the agreement fell through, and Decree 21337 was imposed. Labor had suffered its worst defeat. In July 1987, radical labor leaders were ousted at the COB's convention. COB strategies in 1988 proved more effective. In May 1988, for example, it helped defeat proposals to decentralize health care and education. For the moment, labor had been reduced to defensive actions that sought to protect its few remaining benefits. Nonetheless, the COB was still a formidable force that would have to be faced in the future. For democracy to survive in Bolivia, it was clear that the demands and aspirations of labor would have to be taken into account.
|Country Studies main page | Bolivia Country Studies main page|