Because of the government's strong regulation of the economy and direct control over wages and prices, organized labor directed its challenges against the government rather than against the private sector. Even disputes between labor and government, however, lacked the acrimony or frequency found elsewhere in Latin America, largely because a succession of populist governments curried favor with low-income groups by conceding economic benefits and expanded worker rights. With little struggle, workers gained the right to organize, to strike and bargain collectively, to withhold union dues from paychecks, to work a forty-hour week, and to receive minimum wage and social security benefits. Thus, while the legal framework favored union development, government endorsement of benefits undercut the power of union leadership. High underemployment and rising unemployment in the 1980s also moderated aggressive bargaining.
Labor-government relations became more strained during the Febres Cordero presidency, however, because of that administration's free-market philosophy. Labor called two national strikes in 1987, a one-day stoppage on March 25 to protest rises in gasoline and transportation prices and a second strike on October 28 to demand the ouster of the minister of government and justice. The first stoppage was highly successful and showed an unprecedented degree of unity among Ecuador's divergent labor groups. The second, more political in nature instead of being focused on monetary issues, had much less impact on national activity.
In contrast to growing tension between organized labor and government, the number of conflicts and strikes centered on collective bargaining issues with the private sector declined during the 1980s. Analysts attributed the decline to the increasing reluctance of the average worker to risk his or her job in the face of rising unemployment and a deteriorating economy. The most serious strikes during this period involved work stoppages by public-sector employees, usually teachers or university personnel. Short strikes by petroleum workers and employees of the state electric utility also occurred.
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