Disenchantment with President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's economic and political policies is growing within many of El Salvador's trade unions. A sharp rise in prices over the last three months has pushed these unions, many of which supported President Duarte in the 1984 presidential elections, to call for a four-hour work stoppage today and a large labor demonstration on May 1.
Three months ago, Duarte instituted a United States-backed economic austerity plan, which he said was necessary to pay for the government's costly six-year civil war against left-wing Salvadorean rebels.
Although many of the trade unions are most concerned about price increases, they are increasingly arguing that there is a link between the country's economic crisis and its civil war. Earlier this month, they called for a national referendum on whether to continue the war or to seek a negotitated solution.
The government says that it favors ``honest dialogue'' with the rebels, but says that the time isn't right for negotiations. These unions contend that the government, under US pressure for victory over the guerrillas, has not seriously pursued negotiations.
The average Salvadorean, however, is more immediately concerned with prices in the marketplace -- many of which have doubled since January.
``The rumbles of labor discontent reflect concern about prices,'' says one Western diplomat. ``And the price pressure is there. What UNTS [National Unity of Salvadorean Workers] is concerned about is that prices are going up and nothing is being done to control it.''
UNTS is a broad-based labor coalition composed of centrist unions that formerly supported Duarte, and the more left-wing unions that never supported Duarte and considered him a fa,cade for continued military and US domination. UNTS opposes Duarte's new economic measures, which include currency devaluation, increases in gasoline prices, import taxes, import restrictions, and price freezes on basic goods.
El Salvador traditionally has had an active labor movement, despite the repression that it has suffered from a series of right-wing, military-linked governments.
In the 1970s, the labor movement, seeing that the electoral routes to change had been closed by the military's alleged electoral fraud, moved to the left as did other sectors of society.
Wages were frozen by a military-civilian junta in 1980. Real income began to drop over 10 percent a year. Inflation especially hurt public employees. The strikes they were planning in the fall of 1983 were cut short when death squads killed their leaders.
In the spring of 1984, teachers and other workers took advantage of the safety afforded by international interest in the coming presidential elections and launched a series of strikes that forced the government to grant modest wage increases. But the cumulative loss of buying power and inflation far outstripped the raises. Another wave of public-sector strikes in 1985 forced the government to grant a subsequent modest pay rise.
On Jan. 21 of this year, Duarte announced an austerity plan that had been advised by the US to help diminish the fiscal deficit and reduce inflation, which had risen to 30 percent. Duarte's austerity plan spurred the formation of the broad-based labor coalition, UNTS.
On Feb. 21, UNTS held the largest march in El Salvador in the last six years. The UNTS held a well-attended forum this month in which union members asked Duarte to meet with them. When they received no reply, they planned today's work stoppage.
Political observers say the government has been ``confrontational rather than conciliatory'' with the UNTS. After the UNTS march, the government tried to link UNTS to the rebel movement. But the government's strategy now appears to be to ignore UNTS and concentrate on building its own labor base with the aid of the American Institute for Free Labor Development, according to some observers.
Government officials promise that prices will stabilize in several months and that production and investment will then pick up. But many political and economic analysts question whether economic recovery can be achieved without addressing the war.
Political and economic analysts say the union movement doesn't pose a direct threat to the government at this point. ``Destabilizing the government is not in the cards,'' says the Western diplomat. ``But it does have the potential for hamstringing the government -- weakening the government which is already weak. It could make governing the country more difficult.''
``The ingredients are there for growing labor unrest,'' added the diplomat.