Guatemalan Labor Movements

As a result of the increasing trends of neoliberal development and globalization within Latin
America, particularly within the last several decades, numerous social movements have emerged to
resist and combat the hegemonic oppression of the state. Guatemala is of course no exception to these
trends, and even a cursory examination of recent historical trends reveals numerous uprisings against
the oppressive and exploitative political discourse imposed by the Guatemalan state. While these
movements can be categorized along several lines of identity, ranging from indigenous to gender to
class, it is perhaps most useful to examine them in terms of their goals rather than their specific
demographic composition; in doing this, it becomes possible to study the larger frameworks of
resistance and their dynamics of resistance to restrictive ideologies of governmentality and state
oppression, rather than become entangled in the often conflicting discourses of identity.

A prime example of such a movement is the overarching paradigm of labor movements, which
has rapidly emerged (or arguably and perhaps more accurately evolved from past historicisms to meet
contemporary needs) over the past several decades to combat the exploitative socio-political labor
policies of the state. Effectively marginalizing laborers in exchange for their net exploitative value to
the neoliberal economic system superimposed in the region by transnational corporations—most
notably those of the United States, along with the US government—the current labor system in
Guatemala is severely unbalanced, and is an obvious magnet for new social movements. To understand
these labor movements in their contemporary context however, it is useful to briefly examine the
history of the region, particularly in terms of Spanish conquest and transnational corporate exploitation,
as well as the full blown civil war which engulfed the Guatemalan region for decades.

As with most areas in Latin America, Guatemala was subjected to conquest by the invading
forces of the Spaniards in the early 16th century. Upon arrival, diseases not native to the region
decimated local indigenous populations, ominously foreshadowing the centuries of hardship they
would soon face. Although it has been argued by some Maya that the conquest has never been
completed in terms of cultural survival and persistence of Maya identity, it is certain that in economic
and political terms, Guatemala was fully subjugated to the Spanish. It was under their rule that the
precursory seeds to contemporary politics of exploitation were sown in the region; massive plantations
were established, growing exclusively profitable cash crops, and ravaging the land with agriculturally
and labor intensive practices.

These practices continued until independence was declared in 1821, though this newfound
“independence” was largely only nominal in nature; though no longer directly ruled by the Spanish, the
Guatemalan state remained economically enslaved, particularly to foreign companies. This economic
oppression translated directly into political oppression, as those who controlled labor forces and the
economy were the same whose monetary and military influence ran the government. Far from being
weaned from the economic intervention of the US and other transnational corporations, it is arguable
that it was during these years that Guatemala was the most heavily exploited, and by none other than
the infamous scourge of Latin American development and society; the United Fruit Company.

Appearing in the early 20th century, UFC heavily intensified labor exploitation, viewing the region as
little more than raw profit; as is typical of Latin American “development,” it was the indigenous people
who bore the brunt of the oppression, with what little land and dignity they had held onto being
stripped by the UFC and its massive plantations.

With oppression and exploitation rising exponentially, the national crisis came to a head in the
mid 20th century when a series of popular uprisings and a coup d'etat installed Bermejo into power.
Countering the previous decades—if not centuries—of exploitation, he ousted UFC and began reforms
which placed power back into the hands of the workers, making numerous pushes for increased
solidarity, land reform, and workers rights. Bermejo's successor, Jacobo Arbenz continued these
reforms, shifting power from the corporations and landowners back to the people, effectively laying the
groundwork for current labor movements. Unwilling to see one of their primary exploitable Latin
American peripheries return to the hands of the people, UFC urged the US government to orchestrate a
hostile takeover which installed a series of military dictatorships, which were countered by a surge in
guerrilla activity, effectively launching the country into a full blown civil war which would last well
into the 1990's, and leave tens of thousands dead or “disappeared.” It was during this time that the four
core guerrilla groups emerged (The Guerrilla Army of the Poor [EGP], The Revolutionary Organization
of Armed People [ORPA], The Rebel Armed Forces [FAR], The Guatemalan Labor Party [PGT]), who
would later consolidate to form Guatemala's current social labor activist party, the Guatemalan National
Revolutionary Unit (URGN). The horrific nature of this civil war is beautifully chronicled by
indigenous woman Rigoberta Menchu in her award winning book I, Rigoberta Menchu, as well as a
documentary based around the events, When The Mountains Tremble.

Following an uneasy peace which left few of the social, political, and economic crises resolved,
it became clear that guerrilla movements could not effectively win power back, particular because of
government propaganda and the ambiguous presence of the Catholic church, which used liberation
theology and further state propaganda to de-legitimize the counter-state insurgence. Although there is
no singular unified labor movement (aside from URGN which identifies more with political parties
than social movements), there can be found numerous examples within Guatemala of labor movements
seeking to reclaim power through contained forms of resistance. With transnational corporations still
holding the vast majority of money, and subsequently power, it is up to these grassroots social
networking efforts to succeed where the transgressive violence of the guerrilla movements could not.
To illustrate both the nature and importance of these movements, it is necessary to examine a
case study, particularly that of a labor movement directed against the Phillips-Van Heusen shirt factory.

A typical movement against the exploitation and oppression of factory workers, this movement
highlights two of the most critical elements of Guatemalan labor movements; transnationalism and
solidarity. Overworked and underpaid, the workers of the factory decided to organize a movement
against the plant in hopes of earning a more equitable living; in order for their efforts to succeed
however, they needed to establish solidarity with other local workers, as well as transnational
connections and sympathizers abroad, particularly in the US. Without this local support, it is impossible
for movements to succeed, as the corporations can simply bring in a fresh “supply” of local labors,
desperate to make even the most meager of wages. Beyond this level, it is imperative that they achieve
international recognition and support in order to legitimize their movement. Being that the corporations
that hold the power distribute a majority of their wares to markets in the US, without support of US
consumers, there is little to no incentive for the owners to change their business practices.

Essentially, without organization and a sense of cohesion, both locally and abroad, labor
movements are arguably ineffective; they may garner attention in the short term, but sustained
resistance is the key to overthrowing the current hegemonic system. This is illustrated in the case of the
factory workers, as although they were able to achieve solidarity in terms of local support, their
networks were not able to take transnational roots into the American market; ultimately, the movement
failed to accomplish its goals, but nevertheless serves an important example of the necessity of
transnational support to the success of movements.

Another example is the Marlin mining complex; although workers in eleven out of twelve local
villages voted against opening it, the mining company continued to construct and operate the mine.
Other than this vote (which was arguably just a hegemonic tactic on behalf of the mining company to
extend some semblance of illusionary “power” to the people), there was little collective labor resistance
against the mine in its early days of operation. As time progressed, and the massive exploitation of both
the land and its workers continued, church leaders began to organize networks of resistance to the
mine, meeting with other local church leaders, and establishing a social network of solidarity based on
more equitable labor rights and practices. These networks were eventually able to engage in meetings
and consultations, allowing the voices of the region—again, primarily indigenous ones—to be heard.
Unfortunately, Guatemalan higher courts ruled that these meetings bore no legal standing, and could
not be used to institute more ethical labor practices. Once again, lack of transnational support resulted
in an otherwise successful labor movement being cut short; if the Guatemalan courts and their
constituents can not commiserate with the needs of workers, both rural and urban, there is little hope
for success. Such commiseration can not be expected to occur without some sort of pressure from
external forces, primarily transnational networks with ties in the US. Regardless of the outcome, it is
interesting to note the role played by local churches in the of the movement; while the Catholic church
was historically conservative during the civil war, they lent their support much more readily to
resistance when it was non-violent, and contained within the accepted venues of resistance and
contention.

Although the vast majority of Guatemalan labor movements end in this way, it important that
they not be viewed in desperation and failure; each act of resistance, regardless of its outcome, can be
labeled as effective, so long as it can help contribute in some part to future movements. Isolated
incidents of resistance, particularly those lacking solidarity, can not hope to succeed in the face of
massive state oppression; the current hegemonic system is one in which the state extends freedoms
only to the extent that it maintains their own power. Therefore, if the state does not see a labor
movement as posing any serious threat, it is unlikely to make any concessions. The URGN is a prime
example of a more successful movement, even though it has evolved to possess a more political nature;
the group still maintains its labor connections, and although a small minority at present, given the
creations of enough social networks, could hope to make serious social, economic, and political
advancements. Essentially, labor movements can only be successful if they are maintainable, and can
only be maintained through construction of solidarity and transnational networks.

Sources
Chase-Dunn, C. (2001). Guatemala in the Global System. Journal of Interamerican Studies and World
Affairs, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. vi.-126

Johns, R. (1998). Bridging the gap between Class and Space: U.S. Worker Solidarity with
Guatemala. Economic Geography, Vol. 74, No. 3, pp. 252-271

Laslett, Michael. (2001). The Bitter Facts About Union Rights for Guatemalan Coffee Workers.
Canadian Dimension, Vol. 35, Issue 1, pp. 33

Seidman, Gay. (2008). Transnational Labour Campaigns: Can the Logic of the Market Be Turned
Against Itself? Development & Change, Vol. 39, Issue 6, pp. 991-1003

Smith, Carol A. (1978). Beyond Dependency Theory: National and Regional Patterns of
Underdevelopment in Guatemala. American Ethnologist, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 574-617

Traub-Werner, Marion and Cravey, Altha J. (2002). Spatiality, Sweatshops and Solidarity in Guatemala.
Social & Cultural Geography, Vol. 3 Issue 4, pp. 383-401

Witte, Benjamin. (2005). Multinational Gold Rush in Guatemala. NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol.
9, Issue 1

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