As of 1989, trade unions had not played the consistently strong role in the political system that the economic elites had. Only a small percentage (5 to 7 percent) of the population (12 to 15 percent of the labor force) belonged to labor unions in the late 1980s, and the unions themselves tended to be internally fragmented and weak.
The trade unions were also inclined to be highly political; most were associated with the major political parties. There were a Christian Democratic trade union group, a communist labor organization, a group of unions associated with the PRD, an organization for government workers, a teachers' union, and one relatively nonpartisan group. The several union groups conflicted as often with each other as with management.
Since most Dominicans earned very low salaries, the unions could not support themselves, or very many of their activities, on the basis of union dues. Several of the major groups received funding from outside the country. In addition, because the country typically had high rates of unemployment and underemployment and a surplus of unskilled labor, employers often replaced workers who tried to organize. Sometimes employers engaged in what could be described as union-breaking activities, including the summoning of the police to put down union activities. These and other conditions both weakened and politicized the labor movement. Although collective bargaining had gained popularity and legitimacy, political action was still more widely used by the unions to satisfy their demands. Political action might take the form of street demonstrations, violence, marches to the National Palace, and general strikes-- all meant to put pressure on the government to side with the workers in labor disputes. In extreme cases, a general strike might be called in an effort to topple a government or a labor minister deemed insufficiently receptive to labor's demands.
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