Today in the Americas, Peru's Labor Struggles

General Strike in Peru, 1931

General Strike in Peru, 1933

On May 25, 1919, (90 years ago), police suppressed the largest general strike seen in Lima, Peru, as worker’s demanded price reductions on food and other essential goods. This final bout was initiated by events in January of 1919 when workers at the Cerro de Pasco oil fields demanded a fair share of oil profits. These events triggered a two decade struggle for organized labor.

As the cost of living began to soar, Limeños took to the streets on May 25; as did the capital police with sabers in hand. Five hundred were killed and three hundred were arrested when police stormed a demonstration of women denouncing capitalists for pushing their families to starvation. Machine guns mowed down protesters who threw rocks in defense. The crowds attacked symbols of finance and inequality as well as immigrant shops that it equated with the invasion of its country. The Peruvian oligarchy’s last breaths whimpered out of Lima on that day in May as a new, urban movement was poised to take down the capitalist present and break the government/business collusion that perpetuated the uneven modernization the people felt was tearing up its old societies.

The violence of 1919 brought a new age of nationalism – not only used by centrist candidates (the oligarchy was finished by the time Leguía overthrew the Civilista bureaucracy) by also Communists and the APRA. Leguía, who would rule until 1930, ditched the kinds of modernization led by the oligarchs and, instead, focused on an American-led effort. Leguía was a part of the upper-class but preached like a populist, which was becoming the fashion of the time. But like a lights, Leguía’s pragmatism failed the worker’s as his tactics became harsh and generic. Despite the growths in the economy, the money flowed vertically and would be undone as the Great Depression sunk in.

Peru in the 1930s resembled a war zone of sorts. A nation on the verge of rapid modernization and liberalization with a creeping sense of nationalism discovered as it strode through the turbulence of the Great Depression. It is not often discussed in any meaningful context, but the general strike has been a blessing and curse to labor organizations across South America, in particular, during this period. Often, these events are written off in truly black-and-white Marxist terms. But there was a lot at stake for labor groups and their (in)ability to protect and advance the rights of the workers they represented.

Jose Mariategui

Jose Mariategui

The Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) came to fruition in 1924 to challenge the oligarchy and imperialist capitalism it felt damaged Peru as a nation. Four years after, the Peruvian Communist Party was formed by José Carlos Mariátegui. Both enjoyed success (and infamy) due to who they organized against. These strikes, these radical organizations and their outcomes have implications for business today.

Like most of Latin America in the 1930s, labor was gaining ground across all facets of civil society – blue- and white-collar, student, merchant, professional – and, in Peru, it was led by nationalist forces. The 1931 strike (probably the most famous example) paralyzed Peru for months. Workers rallied around ideas of “abuses of imperialism” and it became second hand in political parlance (including the burgeoning “fad” of populism) to appeal to Peru for Peruvians or, at least, a larger slice of the pie. And it seemed to be working.

The strikes from 1931 on were all solved with a bit or repression followed by a seemingly innocuous arbitration (which was often derided by the left).

The workers’ grievances can be read as an expression of the workers’ moral economy and as an attempt to gain a greater degree of “workers’ control,” understood as “the struggle of workers on the shop floor to gain sufficient command of the work progress to bring dignity to their proletarian lives,” during an upswing in the business cycle.

Arbitration was a means of bargaining and Peruvians often won better working conditions, wages, and more but was always short lived and provided those in power with another opportunity to be ready when the workers left the streets. The foreign capitalists were no omnipresent nor omnipotent, but they held a considerable sway in the Peruvian governments handling of labor situations.

Such as in 1934, in a railroad strike that, again, shut down Lima. This time, the company was the Peruvian Corporation (owned by the British) who were making money after the initial shocks of the Great Depression. The workers, allied across classes, went on strike for higher wages. José Mariátegui and Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre (head of the APRA) viewed the Peruvian Corporation as an obstacle to the development of the Peruvian economy – “embodiment of British economic imperialism in Peru,” as Flores Galindo stressed. On April 21, 1934, the workers took the streets for another round of repression and violence (the 1930s would see tens of thousands of Apristas murdered for their views, which would not be repeated until the 1970s). The British, and by extension the Peruvian government, in the words of Paulo Drinot, labor agitation differently.

Like the Communists, the company’s attitude towards its workers was shaped by prejudiced assumptions about class and, implicitly, race. Whereas the Communists saw empleados as class traitors, the company blamed empleados for the growing militancy in the unions. Although the company’s lists of undesirable workers contained more obreros than empleados.

The 1934 strike ended with a reduction to the working day and higher wages. But in the next few years – as technology improved – workers were cut and union-busting activity became par for the course in Peru. The governments of South America have always been against labor – as thus, the Communist Party and the APRA felt the brunt of its vicious beatings. World War II altered labor relations across the world – labor faltered as the world imitated one another and adopted policies of growth instead of development. Peru today continues to wage wars against neoliberalism that pits owners against workers. Unfortunately, history has proven that the battles between “proletariat” and “capitalists” are not as black-and-white as it was to be believed. The nuances are where wars are won and lost.


~ by Daniel on May 25, 2009.

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