ALTHOUGH the problems of organized labor in Latin America must be considered as a whole, there are many important differences in the situation in the various countries. Despite the outsider's general impression of broad uniformity, the fact is that national conditions and characteristics differ more sharply as between one Latin American nation and another than they do, for instance, as between the United States and Argentina or Uruguay.

Latin America has had no uniform social and economic development, nor, for that matter, does it have a uniform ethnological and cultural background. Argentina, Uruguay and Chile share many Hispano-American qualities; but Brazil, with its Lusitano-American cast, has a language, a racial mixture and a political history that set it distinctly apart from its neighbors. In the Indio-American belt, stretching through the Andes plateau and Central America to Mexico, and embracing Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, there are large sections whose populations still preserve almost intact many elements of the society that existed before the Spanish conquest. The Caribbean nations are characterized by the predominant percentage of Negro inhabitants. The basic national economies of Latin America exhibit similar diversities -- agriculture and cattle-raising in the River Plata areas, mineral resources in the mountain states, petroleum in Venezuela, sugar and derivatives in the Caribbean lands and fruit plantations in the Central American countries.

Unfortunately, one thing that is true of all the Latin American nations is the inferior station accorded labor in the scale of social values. In contrast to the United States, where labor enjoys a substantial degree of respect and social equality, labor in Latin America, particularly of the manual type, is looked down upon. This tendency has been considerably reduced in Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay, and is also diminishing in Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Cuba and other countries as a result of revolutionary social developments in recent years. Despite such signs of progress, the prevailing wage in Latin America does not begin to compare with that of labor in the United States. Working and living conditions are equally backward. Only in Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay have organized industrial workers become strong enough to gain important economic and social improvements, and lesser gains have been achieved in Brazil. But in the majority of the Latin American countries the industrial proletariat still lives under incredibly poor conditions, with the Bolivian tin miners as an especially vivid example of wretchedness.

The low living standards of Latin American workers, as compared with those of workers in the United States, are illustrated by the following table. These figures reveal, as of December 31, 1946, the amount of work, in terms of hours or days of labor, that is necessary to earn the retail price of each of the three basic items of apparel that every man must buy -- a shirt, a pair of shoes and a suit of clothes.


Amount of Labor Necessary to Buy:
Country Type of Worker A Shirt A Pair of Shoes A Suit of Clothes
Colombia Textile worker 1½ days 3 days 1 month
Brazil Commercial worker 1 day 3 days 2 weeks
Chile Metal worker 15 hours 20 hours 150 hours
Paraguay Skilled worker 2 days 4 days 1 month
Peru Unskilled industrial 2 days 2½ days 22 days
Mexico Unskilled worker 3 days 7 days 1 month
Cuba Industrial worker 1 day 2 days 1 week
Venezuela Skilled industrial worker 6 hours 2 days 12 days
United States Manufacturing worker 2 hours 5 hours 37½ hours
  of America   12 minutes   54 minutes
Miner 1 hour 4 hours 27½ hours
  36 minutes   18 minutes
Steel worker 1 hour 5 hours 34 hours
  54 minutes   24 minutes
Retail trade 2 hours 7 hours 46½ hours
  42 minutes   24 minutes


Perhaps the chief reason for the retarded condition of the Latin American labor movement is that none of these countries has enjoyed a sufficiently continuous period of political freedom to permit the growth of trade unions. In Mexico, Colombia and Argentina, for example, labor has achieved freedom only during the past generation. Although several countries, notably Cuba and Uruguay, accorded freedom to labor earlier, the growth of trade unions has been interrupted by governmental repression. In some countries, including Costa Rica, Peru and Venezuela, the labor movement is less than a decade old, while in a number of others, such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, governments are just beginning to allow workers to organize freely. Brazil has permitted the existence of trade unions for almost 15 years -- but under absolute government control.

Latin American trade-union history has been characterized by an unusual degree of politicalization, despite the desires of the anarcho-syndicalists who established the trade unions, particularly in the cities to which the masses of Italians and Spaniards had migrated. These leaders advocated direct action, rather than the adoption of parliamentary methods; class struggle was their slogan. But the repressive measures to which the government authorities usually resorted, as well as outright anti-union legislation, compelled the labor forces to engage in political action in order to preserve their right to organize and to keep their elementary gains. They thus proceeded to cultivate the friendship of such governments as those of Irigoyen in Argentina, José Batlle y Ordóñez in Uruguay, Alfonso López in Colombia, Obregón and Calles in Mexico and others, and to support programs of a legislative nature. These circumstances placed a far greater emphasis on political activity than on straight trade-union efforts, as the latter are generally understood in the United States. This tendency became even more conspicuous with the emergence of the Communist Parties, whose trade union officials often have had no previous relationship whatsoever with the trade or craft to which they have been assigned. For example, Rubén Iscaro, whom the Argentine Communists placed at the head of the once-powerful building trades union organization, never actually worked a day in that or any other industry. Pedro Saad, president of the Ecuador Confederation of Labor until last November, is a businessman. Augusto Durán, general secretary of the Communist Party of Colombia, became a member of the executive council of the river transport workers' union without ever having been employed in that industry. As a result of these and other Communist manipulations in the trade unions of Colombia, the government issued a decree on August 6, 1946, making it mandatory for a union official, in order to be eligible for office, to have been actually employed at wages in the trade or industry in which the union exercises jurisdiction.

The development of a system of collective bargaining, of the kind that prevails in the United States, has been seriously retarded by the preponderance of political-minded leaders in Latin American labor unions. To an extent unknown elsewhere in the western hemisphere, Latin American governments intervene not only in industrial conflicts but also in the internal affairs of trade unions. Admittedly, such intervention can have wholesome effects, as when President Betancourt last year brought to a successful conclusion the turbulent negotiations for an industry-wide collective agreement in the Venezuela oil fields, thus avoiding a costly strike. As a rule, the leaders of organized labor in Latin America reason that if a "friendly government" is in power it gains added prestige through solving labor disputes and, further, that if a "friendly government" is not kept in power, there is danger that the workers may lose their gains.

The forms of state intervention vary from country to country. In Colombia, for instance, it is quite broad. The law prohibits church-controlled trade unions, more than one union in a given plant or more than one labor federation in a given industry. Proportional representation in the election of union officers and machinery to insure fair methods of balloting are also required by law. Strikes in the public services are outlawed, and workers in private industries can strike only after the successive stages of direct negotiation, conciliation and arbitration. In Chile, the government likewise has wide powers to intervene in labor conflicts, especially through the conciliation and arbitration boards and the labor tribunals. It has the power to revoke juridical recognition of labor unions, without which they cannot function. In Brazil, the government does not participate in the negotiation of labor agreements, but it possesses the power to force compliance afterward. In Cuba, the Ministry of Labor supervises the observance of labor agreements. In Argentina, a high degree of governmental intervention in labor conflicts and in the enforcement of labor agreements has developed under the Perón régime, and there are laws raising the minimum wage and prescribing paid vacations and yearly bonuses. Perhaps the most unusual feature of the Argentine program is a system of profit-sharing which vests the workers with a substantial amount of control over the industries in which they are employed.

There are other examples of highly advanced labor and social legislation unknown to the wage-earner in the United States. In Peru and Colombia, payment for Sunday is mandatory if an employee has worked at least four days during the week. In Brazil, a worker is vested with a life-long right to his job after a given number of years of employment. In Argentina, Brazil and several other countries, severance pay up to the amount of several months' wages is required by law. In Cuba, workers are entitled to one month's vacation with pay after each 11 months of employment. In Colombia, railroad and river transport workers are eligible for pensions of 75 percent of their wages. In Uruguay and Argentina, railroad workers have the right to retire at the age of 55 -- incidentally at rates in many cases considered actuarially unsound.

However, while this seemingly enlightened attitude toward workers undoubtedly contributes to their sense of security, it has not resulted in an appreciable betterment of their standard of living. In fact, being keyed to a wage norm so low that it guarantees only the barest kind of existence, it has led to a standardization of misery. It is in sharp contrast to the program of trade unions in the United States, where workers aimed first for a high level of wages -- a "saving wage" -- and then sought social security and welfare legislation to supplement it. Unless the principle of the saving wage is established in Latin America, no large-scale program of industrialization can succeed. Under existing conditions, only a small percentage of the Latin American population has the means to buy home appliances, electrical accessories and other consumer goods. The principle of the saving wage points to the only road that can lead to a substantial increase in the purchasing power of the great mass of Latin American consumers.

In view of these considerations, it would seem to be somewhat illogical for the Latin American Confederation of Labor (C.T.A.L.) to condemn the United States proposals for all-around tariff reduction and advocate the establishment of heavy tariff duties "to protect young national industries." Yet that is the position this organization adopted at a meeting of its Central Committee in San José, Costa Rica, in December 1946, in accordance with the proposal of its president, Vicente Lombardo Toledano. Apparently, this has become one of Toledano's favorite themes; in a speech at the ILO Regional Conference in Mexico City in April 1946 he went so far as to urge the workers to pay higher prices for domestic products than for similar and perhaps better goods from abroad, if such action were necessary to maintain their home industries. Needless to say, this could become an extremely dangerous theory, for it would inevitably lead to parasitical practices seriously impeding the growth of a healthy national economy and resulting in a further decrease of mass purchasing power. It is certainly a paradox to find a labor leader who claims belief in Marxian internationalist principles advocating a policy of economic and industrial self-sufficiency, particularly by small countries conspicuously deficient in raw material, capital and skilled labor.

Any program sincerely concerned with the elevation of the living standards of the Latin American masses must rest upon a policy of economic planning and coöperation on a continental basis. It is wrong to talk of a Mexican economy, an Ecuadorian economy, a Uruguayan economy or any other national economy in this portion of the globe. These are only national segments of what foresighted observers recognize as an over-all inter-American economic and industrial relationship. Raúl V. Haya de la Torre, leader of the Aprista movement, has proposed a bold and novel approach to this question. Speaking before the National Trade Union Assembly of Peru on June 6, 1946, he pointed out that the basic problem of Latin America is not that of the distribution of wealth, as in overpopulated Europe, but rather of the production of wealth. "We do not need to take away wealth from those who have it; we must rather produce wealth for those who don't have it," he declared. And he argued that this can be achieved by "an intelligent coördination of the three factors that produce wealth: state, capital and labor. These three will have to be harmonized. State and capital against labor or state and labor against capital would not work." His plan, already approved by the Peruvian parliament, contemplates the creation of a tripartite national economic congress, subdivided into four sections: 1, basic economy; 2, agriculture and cattle raising; 3, industry and mining; and 4, banking and finance. These groups are charged with a continuing study of the economic and industrial requirements of the country and the formulation of steps for meeting them.

In Venezuela, the government of President Rómulo Betancourt is planning to set up a national economic council of a similar nature. Such steps in two countries bring into sight the encouraging possibility of the formation of national economic councils in every Latin American nation, followed by the emergence of a continental tripartite agency which would coördinate all phases of the inter-American economy and suggest how each country could best contribute of its labor, agricultural, industrial or mineral resources to a program advancing the industrialization of Latin America. An editorial in the July 1946 issue of Apra, official organ of the National Educational Committee of the Aprista Party of Peru, put the program in these words:

Peru's economic plans are orientated toward a continental economic coördination, which is imperative if we are to apply in the economic field of the two Americas the political concept of "democratic inter-Americanism without imperialism." The scientific exploration of the economic realities of each country, which is the first step for the planning of their domestic economies, should, in turn, become the starting point for a joint continental effort to organize constructively our productive interdependence. In this way, from economic planning on a national basis to economic planning on a continental basis, a new system of relationships will arise which will guarantee a stabilization and harmonizing of the production and exchange of wealth between the two Americas.

Latin America's organized labor may well find that this plan is an answer to the question how to increase production, with prices which would not require protective tariffs and with labor costs which would permit the introduction of the saving wage, thus raising the purchasing power of the people.

To do its full share in this endeavor, however, organized labor in Latin America will have to develop a new concept of laborindustry relationships. Stirred up by professional politicians and often abetted by their own governments, the workers of too many Latin American countries have identified all capital as an enemy which must never be trusted and which must be harassed at every opportunity. This is considered particularly true of foreign capital, regardless of the plain fact that, as a rule, foreign capital, especially American, pays much higher wages than native employers. Of course, the behavior of early representatives of foreign capital in Latin America did much to warrant this hostility. Since that time, however, foreign capital has considerably improved not only its conduct but its viewpoint. Organized labor in Latin America could profit by a reëxamination of the record in the light of the concept that workers have a genuine stake in the success of their industries. Haya de la Torre urged a course of coöperation in the speech mentioned above. "Our policy aims to raise the workers' cultural level and technical ability," he said. "We must not only ask for our rights; we must also discharge our duties."

To bring about a more coöperative approach to the problem of industrial relationships in Latin America, both workers and employers might consider the possibilities of some such machinery as has been set up in the United States, featured by the creation of labor-relations departments by employers, staffed with competent personnel (preferably with trade union experience), and the gradual introduction of a system of voluntary impartial arbitration by direct arrangements between employers and labor unions. This machinery, financed equally by employers and workers, functions successfully in many industries in the United States. In Latin America it would seem especially desirable to exclude government agencies and so-called labor wage tribunals from these functions because of their susceptibility to political considerations.


Of course, there are still right extremists in Latin America, but at present the chief threat to the spread of democracy there and to the development of inter-American coöperation stems from the Communist movement. This is steadily growing stronger.

After Pearl Harbor, Communists all over Latin America became the spearhead of an effort to speed up production for the Allies. They declared a moratorium on demands for wage increases and better working conditions, and banned strikes completely. Allied officials, naturally, were grateful for the Communists' assistance.

Throughout the war period, Lombardo Toledano travelled all over Latin America. He did important work in whipping up support for the Allied war effort, and he simultaneously built up the strength of the C.T.A.L. Is Lombardo Toledano a Communist? He says that he is not a party member. But since his trip to Russia, in the early 1930's, he has followed the Communist Party line in international affairs without the slightest deviation. He was for collective security and the Popular Front policy up to the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Then he (and the C.T.A.L.) at once proclaimed the war between Germany and the Allies a capitalist affair in which the workers of Latin America had no interest, and he instantly changed his position when Hitler attacked Russia. That in itself is conclusive evidence. The C.T.A.L. News, and El Popular of Mexico City, which Toledano formerly edited and still controls, are exactly the same as the official Communist press in policy, emphasis and timing, especially in relation to international affairs. Moscow does not disguise its interest in the C.T.A.L. and its monopoly over organized labor in Latin America. For example, Trud, the Soviet trade union organ, on December 7, 1946, assailed the American Federation of Labor for engaging in "provocative attempts to create a new association of Latin American trade unions in competition with the Confederation of Latin American Workers." Besides Lombardo Toledano, the Central Committee of the C.T.A.L. includes seven Communists -- Rubén Iscaro of Argentina, Rodolfo Guzmán of Costa Rica, Lázaro Peña of Cuba, Juan Vargas Puebla of Chile, Pedro Saad of Ecuador, Enrique Rodriguez of Uruguay and Juan P. Luna of Peru; two Socialists -- Juan Briones of Chile and Francisco Pérez Leirós of Argentina; one liberal -- Napoleón Molina of Colombia; and one independent -- Fidel Velásquez of Mexico. For years the C.T.A.L. offered violent opposition to the successive governments of Argentina, leading the fight at the ILO Conference at Philadelphia in 1944, at Paris in 1945 and at Mexico City in 1946 to exclude the Argentine workers' delegates on the ground that they were under government domination. But as soon as Russia reëstablished diplomatic relations with Argentina the C.T.A.L. executed a swift about-face. In July 1946, the group of Communist-controlled labor unions in Argentina announced that they would dissolve and become incorporated into the Argentine Confederation of Labor, an organization which they had just characterized as a tool of President Perón. The Communists also joined with the Argentine Confederation of Labor in what was scheduled to be a series of public demonstrations against the high cost of living, but which they attempted to convert into a series of demonstrations against the United States. At a meeting of the C.T.A.L. Central Committee in San José, Costa Rica, on December 8, 1946, the Argentine Communist leader, Rubén Iscaro, stated that "Argentina is today the only Latin American country that flies the banner of anti-Yankee imperialism."

The attitude of Lombardo Toledano and of the C.T.A.L. toward any Latin American government is determined primarily by Communist political considerations and not by the policies of that government toward organized labor. The C.T.A.L. was friendly to the conservative President Angarita Medina of Venezuela and hostile to his left-wing successor, Rómulo Betancourt, because the former was willing to deal with the Communists while the latter distrusts them. It was willing to deal with the autocratic President Prado of Peru but attacks the revolutionary Haya de la Torre because of his criticisms of Soviet Russia. President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic was a champion of democracy as long as he permitted a group of Cuban Communist organizers to run the Dominican labor movement, but became a dictator again as soon as he revoked this privilege.

A rising storm of opposition all over Latin America to pro-Communist policies has recently caused Lombardo Toledano to trim his sails. In the C.T.A.L. News of December 1946, he declared that "the C.T.A.L. is independent of any government, church or political party. It accepts no political party instructions." Such disclaimers can hardly convince anyone who has studied the record of the C.T.A.L. and its president. To describe the growing revolt against Communist domination of the labor movement country by country would require a great deal of detailed analysis, for which there is no space here. But certain manifestations may be noted. In Argentina, the split in the General Confederation of Labor (C.G.T.) in March 1943, resulting in a right wing headed by José Domenech and a left wing led by Francisco Pérez Leirós, has since been followed by a general reshuffling in both groups, brought about by the policies of Juan Domingo Perón, first as Secretary of Labor and then as President. Since the dissolution of the Communist-controlled labor unions and their incorporation into the C.G.T., the right wing has unquestionably become the stronger and more representative labor group in the country. In the aggregate, the organized workers of Argentina number more than 750,000, with more than 500,000 in the C.G.T. As already indicated, none of the Argentine labor organizations is at present affiliated with the C.T.A.L., though the C.T.A.L. leader in Argentina paradoxically lauds President Perón.

The unity of the Uruguayan labor movement, which was brought about in 1942, ended a year later when a group of unions led by Socialists left the Unión General de Trabajadores (U.G.T.), which was affiliated with the C.T.A.L. These Socialists accused the C.T.A.L. of Communist domination and sectarianism. Other unions followed suit in 1944 and 1945, and only a minority of organized labor in the country is now affiliated with the C.T.A.L.

After the new Brazilian Constitution came into effect, the government invited the various local and state labor organizations to a national convention with the purpose of setting up, for the first time in the country's history, a truly representative, nation-wide trade union federation. The meeting began on September 9, 1946, in Rio de Janeiro but was adjourned several days later by the Minister of Labor because it was obvious that the convention had already split irreconcilably between the Communists and their opponents. Those groups proceeded to form two separate Brazilian Confederations of Workers and each is now claiming official recognition.

In Chile, following the general strike of February 1946 which was promoted by the Communists but opposed by the Socialists, the Chilean Confederation of Labor split into two factions, one headed by Bernardo Ibañez, a Socialist schoolteacher, and the other by Bernardo Araya, a Communist Deputy. Both groups are affiliated with the C.T.A.L. However, following the convention of his organization in Santiago on December 13, 1946, Ibañez announced that the Socialist group would quit the C.T.A.L. within six months if it had not completely rid itself of Communist control by that time. The depth of the Chilean Socialists' feelings over this crisis is indicated in their reply, on December 25, to Lombardo Toledano's plea for unity, in which Ibañez declared: "We are not ready here to accept any understanding with the Communists . . . who are trying to dominate the working class and are using methods of coercion perhaps worse than those employed by the Nazis to dominate Europe."

The electoral victory of the Aprista Party in Peru in 1945 was followed by the virtual elimination of Communists from positions of leadership in the trade unions of this country. The Apristas are in full control of the labor movement there. The president of the Peruvian Confederation of Labor is Arturo Sabroso Montoya, a self-educated textile worker who has suffered many years of imprisonment and exile; he is a devoted follower of Haya de la Torre. Although the Peruvian Confederation of Labor is affiliated with the C.T.A.L., it constitutes one of the strongest centers of opposition to the policies of Lombardo Toledano.

The Ecuadorian Confederation of Labor was organized only a few years ago, with strength divided almost equally between Socialists and Communists, and with a Communist president, Pedro Saad. However, at the Guayaquil convention in November 1946, the Socialists mustered sufficient strength to capture the presidency, the vice-presidency and a majority of the Central Committee. As a result of this shift of power, it is expected that the Ecuadorian Confederation of Labor will line up with the groups that have been advocating a change of C.T.A.L. policy.

The labor movement of Venezuela is largely under the control of the trade union elements of the Acción Democratica Party. Although the Communists are quite strong in the oil workers' union and in a number of smaller unions in the Federal District, including that of the clothing workers, there is little evidence of further gain in their strength. It appears almost certain that the Venezuelan trade union body will join in demanding sweeping reforms in policy and leadership in the C.T.A.L.

The powerful Confederation of Labor of Cuba, organized in 1938 through a merger of various independent unions, is today the main pillar of the C.T.A.L. structure and is under the complete domination of Communist elements. Its general secretary, Lázaro Peña, a young Negro tobacco worker, is an able leader and indefatigable organizer. The only serious challenge to Communist leadership of the Cuban labor movement could come from the trade union elements of President Grau San Martin's Autentico Party, but such a showdown has been postponed, apparently for reasons of internal policy.

There is an interesting beginning of a Catholic trade union group in Costa Rica, which opposes the Confederation of Labor headed by the Moscow-trained Rodolfo Guzmán. It calls itself the "Rerum Novarum," since it derives its ideological inspiration from Pope Leo XIII's famous encyclical. The "Rerum Novarum" is the fruit of the progressive labor policy fostered by Monsignor Sanabria, Bishop of San José. It operates along traditional trade-union lines and on a non-confessional basis.

Though there are such signs of successful revolt against Communist domination of trade unionism in Latin America, the Communists themselves are unremittingly on the job. Intensive agitation against every aspect of the foreign policy of the United States and England -- with unequivocal support of every phase of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union -- characterizes the pages of El Siglo of Santiago, La Hora of Buenos Aires, La Tribuna Popular of Rio de Janeiro, Hohie of São Paulo, Hoy of Havana, and scores of other daily, weekly and monthly publications under Communist control. Luiz Carlos Prestes, leader of the Brazilian Communists, is reported to have said that in the event of war between the United States and Russia, he would organize bands of partisans to sabotage Brazilian attempts to aid the United States. In the same vein, El Siglo stated that in the event of war between the United States and Russia, not one ton of nitrate, copper or other minerals would leave Chile for shipment to the United States. Nor could this be considered an idle threat since the Chilean Communists have a tight grip on the labor organizations in the nitrate fields and in the coal and copper mines. On May Day 1946, the Communist-controlled Bolivian Confederation of Labor proclaimed: "Our international position is firmer than ever in favor of Russia, the Workers' Fatherland. Her glory is our glory. Russia is the only country that defeated Nazi-Fascism in the war." This organization has labor jurisdiction over the vital tin mines of Bolivia.

One antidote to Communist control of Latin American labor is the proposal which has been laid before the American Federation of Labor for the establishment of a permanent Inter-American Trade Union Association of democratic, independent and effective labor organizations. Such a trade-union association could promote the dissemination of sound information among Latin American trade unionists concerning the methods, techniques and structural devices of organized labor in the United States, by direct contact among both union leaders and rank-and-file groups. It could foster a regular exchange of trade-union missions free of any governmental control. The training of Latin American labor leadership would be greatly expedited by a scholarship plan under which Latin American trade unionists would come to the United States and Canada to acquire practical experience in labor schools, organized shops and trade-union offices. In addition, the plan features an exchange of trade-union publications and other literature specially prepared in Spanish and Portuguese. A clear picture of the achievements and aspirations of labor in the United States would constitute a potent contribution to the defeat of extremists of both the left and the right in Latin America. An inter-American labor movement would supply the missing link in the chain of Pan Americanism and Good Neighbor Policy, and make truly serviceable instruments of both for the task of uniting the hemisphere.

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  • SERAFINO ROMUALDI, of the editorial staff of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union; representative of the American Federation of Labor for trade union relations with Latin America
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