In Salvador, government-union tensions reach dangerous level. Both sides take more confrontational stance

Tensions between left-wing labor unions and the government of Jos'e Napole'on Duarte are at the highest level of his three years in the presidency, diplomats and political analysts say. This tension has resulted in a confrontation that has reached dangerous levels, they add. The unions' increased aggressiveness and the government's hardline approach in dealing with them have created the confrontation.

Many political observers are alarmed by recent events and fear there will be even greater confrontation and violence in coming days. The events include:

The wounding of at least three people July 15 when police fired on demonstrators. There is confusion over who began the shooting. The military says armed demonstrators began firing and that the police fired in the air to disperse the crowd. Witnesses say the demonstrators were armed only with clubs.

Police firing July 8 on striking workers who were trying to push their way into the Social Security Institute's offices. At least 15 were wounded, including demonstrators, police, and a camera crew.

A highway stoppage by leftist guerrillas on July 13 to 17 to protest the July 8 shootings. The stoppage, the year's sixth, halted national highway traffic.

``It looks pretty ugly, both the increased aggressiveness of the unions and the reaction of the police,'' a West European diplomat says.

Labor supported Mr. Duarte in the 1984 presidential race. But much of the labor movement, including many of the United States-financed unions that supported him, became disillusioned by his slowness in making progress on his promises to bring peace and prosperity.

The leftist unions, which never supported him, remember the repression of the early 1980s, when Duarte headed the military-civilian junta. Hundreds of leftist union activists were killed by death squads. Today, these unions view Duarte as a pawn of the US, which they say has helped keep the seven-year war going by sending millions of dollars to the government.

Duarte views the unions as a front for the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas. He says the FMLN is orchestrating the increase in labor activity and that the left is trying to provoke a violent reaction to create a ``martyr'' for its cause.

Although political analysts agree that many of the opposition unions sympathize with the guerrillas, they dispute the degree of rebel control. ``It's an error of the government to categorize all the groups that put forth labor demands as FMLN,'' says Hugo Carrillo, secretary-general of the centrist Party of National Conciliation.

Many diplomats and analysts fault the government for taking a confrontational stance and trying to destroy the labor opposition. This has forced the unions to take more desperate actions, labor analysts say.

``The government is being inflexible and trying to provoke the unions,'' a Latin diplomat says. ``Many of the workers' demands are just. For instance, the pay raise that Duarte promised in the beginning of the year has never been paid to the public workers.''

The major labor battle has been the Social Security Institute workers' strike. The Institute runs several hospitals and clinics for insured workers. The June 1 strike was called to press demands for salary increases, a new hospital to replace the one destroyed in last October's earthquake, and improved conditions for patients.

The government has taken a hard line with the union, firing over 100 strike leaders, starting legal proceedings against them, and attempting to have the union dissolved for leading the strike, which is technically illegal.

``We're struggling because our salaries are low, because the benefits we receive are inadequate. Hunger, misery, lack of jobs and decent housing, the shooting of workers, that's the origin of the problem,'' says Julio Portillo, a teachers' union leader shot and wounded May 31 when police fired on a demonstration.

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