The Middle Class
Uruguay has often been described as the most middle-class nation in Latin America. In this social category were to be found civil servants, teachers, white-collar workers, small businessmen, officers in the military, and medium-sized farmers. Economic crises since the 1960s have, nevertheless, squeezed this sector of the population hard. One reason for the rise of women in the labor force was the struggle of middle-class families to maintain their standard of living. Moreover, it was very common for middle-class Uruguayans to have two (or even more) jobs.
For much of the twentieth century, Uruguay's middle classes benefited from the provision of excellent public education at no cost up through university. Public schools began to decline in quality in the 1970s, however, and few members of the middle class could afford the requisite fees to have their children educated privately. A similar pattern of deterioration in public health care and the value of state pensions occurred, adding to the difficulties of the middle classes. Public-sector wages were severely squeezed under military rule (from 1973 to 1985), as were private-sector wages, but to a slightly lesser degree. A major factor was the virtual suspension of wage bargaining under a climate of systematic repression of labor unions. Previously, white-collar unionization had been high.
The middle classes were typically employed as civil servants or white-collar workers. Many worked in small businesses, but some of these businesses were hurt by the market-oriented economic reforms of the 1970s, which led to the liberalization of manufactured imports. From 1978 until 1982, the middle classes benefited from a boom in imported durable consumer goods, such as automobiles, appliances, and electronics. The subsequent economic slump left many families heavily in debt and unable to meet their obligations. Particularly hard hit were individuals who had taken out mortgages denominated in dollars. When the Uruguayan new peso collapsed in 1982, many of them found their house and apartment payments had tripled overnight. A similar debt crunch hit many medium-sized firms that had expanded by borrowing.
The Uruguayan middle classes were avid joiners of interest groups and professional associations. Among these were the professional associations of lawyers, civil servants, notaries, accountants, bankers, and physicians. Some white-collar labor unions, although less prestigious than the professional associations, were home to the middle classes. For instance, workers in health care had the Federation of Uruguayan Sanitation Workers, with 13,400 members.
High school teachers (profesores) were organized in the National Federation of Secondary Teachers, which had nearly 2,400 members. Grade school teachers (maestros) had the Uruguayan Federation of Elementary Teachers, with nearly 7,100 members. University professors (docentes) belonged to the Association of Professors of the University of the Republic, which had 2,000 affiliates. The Uruguayan Association of Bank Employees (Asociación de Empleados Bancarios del Uruguay--AEBU) was much larger, with 15,344 members, as was the Confederation of State Civil Service Organizations, with 25,508 members. Many of these associations ran cooperative stores and social clubs. For example, the AEBU had a large modern headquarters in downtown Montevideo containing meeting rooms and a theater.
The importance of education to the middle classes was underlined by the widespread use of professional titles. Lawyers were formally addressed as doctor, accountants as contador, engineers as ingeniero, and so forth. However, the rapid expansion of higher education began to lead to graduate unemployment and underemployment in the 1960s, a further source of strain on the middle classes.
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