Salvador-labor friction reaches flash point as union leaders abducted
San Salvador — The relationship between this embattled country's workers and their government has reached a crisis point, according to union leaders, workers, and United States labor advisers here.
Three directors of major unions have been abducted and disappeared this week. Over 100 people involved in union activity have disappeared this past month, labor officials here say.
''The situation is very grave,'' a US labor adviser remarks. ''But rather than confront that problem the military is attempting to crush the union movements, as it did in 1979.''
In 1979, a high point of union unrest, the military tried to silence union dissent by force. Salvadorean union officials say that between 1979 and 1981 a total of 5,123 union members were assassinated, 1,875 disappeared, and 539 were imprisoned. Another 793 were wounded when troops opened fire on union demonstrations.
At the same time, workers have not received wage increases for three years, although consumer prices have more than doubled. A pound of corn, which cost 20 centavos in 1979, now is 70 centavos. A pound of beans has jumped to 100 centavos, from 40. These two items make up the staple of the diet for Salvadoreans.
Through a series of decrees the Salvadorean government has declared strikes illegal since 1977. Decree 296 allows employers to fire workers for suspected union involvement.
Workers at the Instituto de Vivienda Urbana (IVU), a state-owned construction company, are conducting a ''work stoppage.'' Each day about 700 of the 1,300 employees have come to IVU but refuse to work. IVU has been shut down since the work stoppage began on Aug. 30. The workers, who earn about $2.50 a day, have asked for a salary increase of 25 percent. They want a bi-yearly bonus of $250 and the right to organize. Their newest demand is the return of the secretary-general of the union, Rosendo Mejia, one of the three abducted this week.
Union members this week appealed to the Red Cross, the Roman Catholic Archbishop's office, and the nation's Supreme Court for assistance on his release. Union leader Leopoldo Rafael Abrego concedes the appeal was mostly symbolic. ''Few people who have been abducted are seen again,'' he says.
''The government has refused to negotiate with us,'' says acting union director Esteban Gonzalez. ''We have written letters to the Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Public Works, President Magana, and the Constituent Assembly for help in resolving the dispute, but no one has answered.''
The president of IVU, Miguel Angel Villabos, told the workers they do not have the right to organize, because they work for the government. ''The government,'' he told them, ''is your union.''
Union members report being approached by government officials in the last few days. These workers claim the government has offered them new jobs if they leave the strike.
The IVU union was once a member of the National Federation of Unions of Salvadorean Workers (Fenastras). This confederation helped organize the last general strike in 1980. After the strike, the confederation was outlawed and the directorate imprisoned. The leaders of Fenastras are currently incarcerated.
''The major labor confederations of the last decade are fighting now to survive,'' says a leader of the Unitary Federation of Salvadorean Workers (FUSS). ''We have had our office bombed and hundreds of our members have been killed or disappeared.''
The FUSS union now shares an office with another labor confederation. They have one typewriter and no telephone.
The secretary-general of FUSS, Santiago Hernandez, was abducted outside the Banco Salvadoreno on Sunday, Sept. 25. He was headed to a gathering of union representatives who planned to initiate the 19th annual FUSS congress. Mr. Hernandez was to begin his speech speaking of those who have died in the last few years attempting to organize in El Salvador.
''What you have,'' says a US labor adviser, ''is a hard-right political faction that refuses to let moderate political forces solidify. I can see us going back to 1979.
''This is the last chance for El Salvador,'' he adds. ''If they do not stop these death squads, I cannot see the purpose of giving them aid. And without US aid, the guerrillas would take this country in two months.''