Public Sector Strike or Sapping of the Workers’ Movement

From Colombia

Background to New Bourgeois Measures, Reaction of the Masses and Imperialist Promises

In Colombia a process of insurrection has been unleashed by capitalism as the conflict between the two bourgeois military fronts is extended and exacerbated. This flare-up also involves a struggle for total control over the drugs business in an exceptional situation where the imperialist bourgeoisie and the marginalised of Colombia and other neighbouring countries are fighting a ferocious battle. If the former have a means to expand their super profits in the shape of the multibillion drugs business, the latter have found - in the hallucinogens which sedate the inhabitants of the metropoles - the “gold of the poor”, a sure path to the El Dorado of capitalist wealth which up until now they had only viewed on their TV screens. In the midst of these forces is the proletariat, subjected to the worst aggression in history from a bosses’ front which includes the capitalist groups: the parties of all colours, the State and imperialism with all its rival currents. In other words, the masses are under attack and driven to despair on two easily identifiable fronts. On one side are the economic repercussions of the crisis, the intensification of competition, the shrinking of markets. On the other, the aggressive escalation of imperialism and its military fronts which wish to impose greater levels of submission and exploitation through terror, on the one hand, democracy, modernity and the “fight against drugs”, on the other. - A strange genre of “socialism” where commodities, money, social classes and of course the State remain supreme. All these circumstances enrage the masses and catapult them into rebellion against the established “order”. But these conditions alone do not make them revolutionaries.

Current reality in effect presents three facets which together produce one of the most curious and peculiar situations. The first consists of the anti-capitalist rebellion which is a response to the inexorable working-out of the crisis. The second is the reaction against imperialist colonisation, embodied in the Yankee functionaries who today practically govern Colombia. (In the development of the anti-worker and contra-insurgency strategy the multinationals have situated their headquarters in Bogotá.) The third is represented by a proletariat which, without a revolutionary political past, and without strong traditions of anti-capitalist struggle, has today become a solitary giant, seized by anger and frustration, but without communist class consciousness, trying to direct the confronting bands with its powerful arms. In these circumstances there only remain the Stalinists and traditional reformist left to occupy the entire vacuum of political leadership left by history. They are claiming to be the vanguard of the social response, no longer only against the establishment’s, and all its parties’ attack upon the workers, but also on the side of the marginalised who believe they have found their ticket to paradise by the production of narcotics and their trafficking. The communist party and the communist programme are distinguished by their absence.

The proletariat does not need to justify itself nor invoke reasons to rebel. Its own existence should provide the arguments and motivation for its movement. However, unfortunately, in the real world the proletariat does not live on its own, without the blight of bourgeois influences. To fully acquire its historical, revolutionary attitude, the proletariat requires no other condition than to grow and strengthen itself via an organisation which concentrates its will and hones its readiness to fight to the maximum. But first and foremost it has to sweep away its political adversaries. On Thursday, August 3rd this was made perfectly clear. The new strike in the State sector under a trade union leadership intoxicated by the anachronistic idea of maintaining a layer of dignified government functionaries above the rest of the working class, has revealed the historic bankruptcy of trade unionism and the forces of the left bourgeoisie which have no programme other than that of class collaboration and conciliation. Their sole political formula consists of preaching to the politically innocent and unwary mass of proletarians who joined the demonstrations only to become a compliant flock. The behaviour of the unions and “workers’ parties” reminds us of the eternal counter-revolutionary strategy; “If you can neither prevent nor control the mass movement, then you must lead it.”

The left and the unions have led the proletariat along the path of Golgotha, the path of renunciation which in the end means accepting the Calvary which the hateful established order has in store for it. In spite of the fact that the initial call of the union leadership was too limited, the disorganised proletarian masses came out to express the pain and misery which they could no longer keep pent up in the hovels where they live. In fact some 1,200,000 people, most of them not involved in work in the State sector, mobilised in more than 1,000 municipalities against the policies of the government and the bosses. The biggest demonstration took place in Bogotá D.C. with some 200,000 demonstrators who, over-controlled by the union police, held back their anger and resigned themselves to chewing over litanies. Here is new evidence of the fact that the unionists’ fear towards this mass is as great as the instinctive dread felt by the bourgeoisie itself: both know that this is what gives body and form to revolutions and large scale actions.

The masses demand immediate solutions, not diplomacy. Still hampered by ideological veils, they dream of a new world free of pain, oppression and misery. Yet when they dare to claim it they are only given the old, rotten world dressed in reformist costume. True, on August 3rd there were battles, but the masses who gathered around them were moved by the same blind fury as a hurricane, not knowing where to creatively direct their extraordinary strength. In the city of Popayán in the South West of the country, in Cali in the West, in Medellín, in Chinchina and Manizales in the coffee producing region, there were pitched battles between demonstrators and the police, with dozens of wounded and arrested. In other cities there were barricades and disturbances on a smaller scale. Everywhere the proletariat demonstrated its anger. But this is not enough: it is still necessary to draw up a grand battle plan which shows the path leading to its revolutionary dictatorship. The absence of a real communist party on the proletarian political scene opens the way for the reformist answer. In Colombia this is as bloody as the political phase of revolution itself, but without any of the essential transformations which would result in the realisation of the communist programme.

War And Reform

War and capitalist social reform are two intimately linked moments of the counter-revolutionary process underway in Colombia.

The labour reform project proposes:

  • Eliminating the right to collective negotiation.
  • Suppression of payment for overtime, working nights, Sundays and holidays.
  • The establishment of an integrated wage for those with a salary equal or greater than three minimum wages.
  • Reduction of working time to 36 hours per week, with a proportional reduction in wages.

In turn, the social security reform project proposes:

  • An increase in the pensionable age to 65 for men, 62 for women.
  • Elimination of special and exceptional pension schemes (Telecom, Ecopetrol, Teaching, Armed Forces).
  • Increasing the working time necessary to gain the right to a pension from 1,000 to 1,300 weeks.
  • Reduction of the percentage amount for pension income from 75% to 50% of earnings, thus clearly reducing the value of pensions.
  • Elimination of pension substitution (according to which the partner of the deceased retired person inherits the pension), so widows and widowers will be left without any means to secure their subsistence at an age when they most need it.

The grave threat posed by the new projects of “Labour Reform” and “Social Security Reform” as well as the complementary proposal to combat unemploy-ment by reducing the wages of newly-contracted workers to half the legal minimum wage in place up to now, (1) plus the compulsory distribution of actual working time amongst twice as many workers, obliging them to work half the time for half the salary at a faster rate, has spontaneously brought onto the streets hundreds of thousands of potential soldiers in the class struggle. Such “solutions” will have been conceived with the figure of 21 million people who live below the poverty line in mind. (In fact, over the last two years a million new members have joined Colombia’s pariah army, as well as the three million plus unemployed who walk the streets of the cities.) It does not entail a step up for the “absolutely miserable” to a lesser grade of poverty. What it means is the descent of those at this latter level to that of absolute misery.

Apart from the crude worsening of the attack on the world of labour, the size of the 3rd August mobilisation was also in part due to the approval of the “Colombia Plan” by the government and the US Congress. This is an all-embracing counter-insurgency plan backed by $1,600,000,000 with the aim of suppressing all resistance to the process of economic globalisation led by the multinationals. The promise is the birth of a Happy New World in which Colombians will be complete “world citizens”, as free and equal as their “peers” - Ken Dan-Ren in Asia, Agnelli and Manesmann in Europe and Bill Gates in North America. Naturally, no imperialist promise comes for free. And today the price we have to pay is high because in the words of a well known preacher, “Our sins are great and we have to do penance for them before we enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. After the purifying Calvary of war, the USA and its Colombian puppet government promise us the transformation of the region into an Eden-like paradise where we will all freely participate in the business universe on equal terms alongside Exxon, Dupont, Ford, Monsanto, Mitsubishi, Rockefeller and company.

The current projects and reforms which caused the 3rd August protest are the latest amongst a succession of blows from the State and bosses to fall on the working class since the 80’s. Ever since there has been no let up in the implacable offensive against the economic and political conditions of the working class. Thanks to the control over the masses enjoyed by the reformists and the left bourgeoisie, the bourgeois measures have been carried out, one after another. The unions have demonstrated their historic uselessness. Instead of putting forward the social demands of the workers, they only discuss the dose, the extent and timing of the losses and sacrifices the working class must accept. Their activity is confined to the same horizon as capitalist political economy. The boss class must, at all costs, restore the profitability of their business via the continuous devaluation of labour costs and increased productivity in order to become competitive in the context of a globalised economy. If it is to overcome these limits and all the impositions these entail, the working class has to go beyond the capitalist horizon and adopt the communist perspective which subjects all social questions to the proletarian point of view, presenting a revolutionary alternative to capitalist society in a productive order free from the laws of the market and profit.

The Conditions Leading To Generalised Revolt

The globalisation of markets has meant the disappearance of industry which used to produce for the internal market (dislodged by multinational companies producing perishable and durable consumer goods) and the process of privatisation and trans-nationalisation of commercial and service enterprises. Very few of these enterprises were competitive and most suffered a serious technological backwardness. The companies which were unable to integrate into finance capital’s game - which forces the entire mechanism of production and distribution to operate as a mere transmission belt for profit - quit the scene once they had to confront the competition from international companies. Although the opening of the capital market has allowed the inflow of international investment, the buying up of enterprises and financial injections have only provoked fictitious growth. What is really happening is property is being transferred.

While the rural economy, left without subsidies, is languishing the companies which underwent technological reconstruction to remain competitive have dramatically reduced the number of jobs. The enterprises which show a positive balance sheet only do so thanks to the practice of downsizing (by cutting back personnel). But how long can this state of prosperity for a few firms last without increasing production and the amount of business on the individual and general level? Last year the economy shrank by almost 7% and this year the attempts at recovery are not producing favourable economic indicators. Again these show a fall in sales, production and expectations, as well as a rise in unemployment to 24%. According to DANE (2) figures most of the unemployed came from commercial activities (27%), industry (19.2%) and community, social and personal services (24.1%). The report presents the number of job losses as follows: Operatives (29.9%), service workers (22.3%), forest workers (1.1%) public employees (1.5%) and professionals and technicians (6.9%).

The figures supplied by the investigative bodies show an economy registering its greatest decline in 100 years. According to the Superintendencia de Valores, the firms listed on the stock exchange are worth half of what they were five years ago. From nearly US $20,000 million, their value reduced to almost US $10,000 million, i.e. a drop in value of some 51%. (3)

Without the money from the narcotics trade - now no longer invested in the country but kept hidden or sent to so called “financial paradises” - the amount varying, according to the differing figures offered by the different state agencies, from between $10 and $40 billion annually, and with interest rates which averaged 50% in previous years, enterprises have been brutally beaten. Entire industries, like construction - which plays an essential, dynamising role throughout the economy - have disappeared and others are suffering decline. Besides, the shock tactics of the government to stop inflation have contributed little to changing the general outlook. Although the application of deflationary measures has permitted the overcoming of the inflationary spiral - by reducing inflation to single figures (9.6%) - like Ecuador, it has worsened the recession. A brake has been put on the balance of trade deficit - which in 1998 went up to $6 billion - but only because recession has been able to balance the scales. The fall in consumption is also generalised. According to Fedesarrollo the worsening level of consumption has affected 35.2% of households in the country.

Differentiating by social strata, the figures show a particularly serious impact upon the lower sectors of the working class, here affecting 45.1% of households. The statistics of the Superintendencia de Industria y Comercio, published for the above quoted period, show plummeting vehicle sales, by 16.9% in 1998 and 53% in 1999. From almost 150,000 cars sold in 1997, this became around 60,000 hardly two years later. A similar fall has been confirmed in the consumption of essential products.

Although the government attempts to present an image of internal stability to the world by meeting its debt payments to the international financial system without yet opting for freezing or restructuring its external debt like other South American countries, it has to sacrifice 36% of the national budget to cover it whilst reducing social investment to a pathetic 4%. The geometric increase in spending on parasitic sectors due to the hypertrophy of the repressive State machinery - strictly linked to the sharpening of the “internal” war - as well as the gigantic growth of external debt, have deprived the State of the capacity it would have in normal conditions to intervene to mitigate the dysfunction of the capitalist economy. It is estimated, in fact, that 75% of all new State investment is directed to the repressive apparatus (army, police, judicial system, prisons etc.) and that 68% of state spending arises from the army and police. It is worth noting that new data shows that of the 875,000 directly employed by the government, 325,000 belong to the security forces. (4)

Over the last year and a half, Pastrana’s government has carried out five tax reforms and is proposing a sixth which comprises:

  • The permanent establishment of a 0.2% tax on every bank transaction, destined to cover the losses of the financial sector.
  • Directing 50% of the national budget (whose total amount is 87 billion pesos) to the external debt.

Moreover, with the devaluation of the currency in recent months and the high cost of issuing bonds abroad (due to the poor standing of the Colombian economy this has increased from an average of 200% to 900%) overall debt has grown significantly. (The total amount is over $40 billion.)

For the moment the initiative is in the hands, on the left, of the armed reformists - who put themselves forward as the new agents and local guarantors of imperialism - and on the right, of the oligarchic bloc currently in power tied to the imperialist capitalism of the USA. Between “left” and “right” is an enraged proletariat but without a strategy for the way forward. The starting point for a new move-ment has to be the raising of immediate demands which embrace the widest sectors of the working class and put the mass of the proletariat onto its own ground of self-organisation and direct action against capital and all the social and political organs of the bourgeoisie.

Circulo Comunista Internacionalista

(1) Thanks to devaluation, the current minimum wage is now less than the US $150 which was the rate at the beginning of 1999. Besides, it is useful to point out that according to official government statistics (the DANE) in line with the IPC consumer price index, at least 7 minimum salaries are necessary for a nuclear family of three people to subsist in “dignity”.

(2) The “National Administrative Department of Statistics”.

(3) See El Tiempo 2nd July 2000.

(4) On this point it is worth noting that when reforms began only 20 years ago there were 2,000,000 state workers, of which only 120,000 were members of the repressive apparatus. This amply demonstrates that the only investment which the bourgeoisie justifies is that which serves its own class defence!