Uruguay has a rather unique and intriguing union structure. Out of a Million workers, 450,000 are affiliated to their biggest union called PIT-CNT. Politically left leaning, the union is not affiliated to any of the political parties. It plays a dominant role in Uruguayan society and has gone from strength to strength in last 10 years. We talk to , Gabriel Molina, who is a secretary of conflicts and propaganda who explains to us the history of the union, it’s organisational structure, it’s successes, it’s current struggles and the status of Uruguayan working class in general.
Q : Can you tell us something about the history of PIT-CNT?
A : I would first like to say that in my opinion, we have a rather unique union in the world. It is certainly the case in Latin America. For example Brazil has 5 major unions and a sixth one if about to open.
Uruguay has a long history of worker’s unions. Till 1920, we had three major unions run by Anarchists, Socialists and Communists respectively. After 1920, the socialist union split into two and till 64 this was the situation. There was a lot of internal fighting between various unions purely due to their ideological differences. This is when the workers affiliated to different unions realised that most of the issues they were fighting for were the same, and hence they could work together inspite of their different ideological bend. Hence in 1964, a negotiation started between different unions with a view towards a merger. First experiment of unification was on May 1st, 1965 when a joint statement was released and the it was decided that the merged unions will have a single orator. The merger was complete in 1966. This unity was highly beneficial for the working class and there were a number of struggles working class carried out between 1966 and 1973, when all the union leaders were jailed and the union was banned. In 1983, when the leaders were released, the union had a resurgence under a new name (due to the ban they could not operate under the original name) called PIT which later became PIT-CNT in 1985.
Q : What is the structure of PIT-CNT?
A : It should be remembered that PIT-CNT is an ensemble of 45 different unions, federations and syndicates. Roughly speaking it has a verticalised structure in the following order of importance. There is Congress at the top, below which there is representation (comprising of 45 representatives from various unions and syndicates) . Then comes fiscal commission, then regional departments (also known as the small congress), regional executive committee (which looks into the affairs of unions in that region) and regional fiscal commission which aids the national fiscal commission. We have a conventions every three years, where 45 representatives from 45 unions get together and select 15 executive secretaries who constitute the congress. As a part of the constitution, 15 exec. secretaries should equally represent the three different ideologies, namely socialist, communist and Christian. This is the way we ensure that ideological inclinations of different groups are not compromised to a certain extent but are preserved alongside the unity of the working class.
We have 29 different branches of activities, like construction ; manufacturing, telecommunications each of which has one or more unions.
Q : Is PIT-CNT affiliated to any of the political parties?
A : Absolutely not. Of course we are left leaning, and very sympathetic to the left government who in turn is very supportive of our union. However we do not have any direct affiliation with them. In fact, if any of the PIT-CNT congress members want to go into parliament, he has to leave the union.
Q : This is the third term of the left coalition in Uruguay? How have things changed since they came to power.
A : Things have changed a lot. Till 2004, we had only 90,000 members. The conservative right wing government made it very difficult for union to function by not letting us form unions in newly established factories. However we now have 450,000 members. so you can see the difference! The reason is a law the left coalition passed known as approval of freedom to form a syndicate. So now by law, a union is allowed to form anywhere (and of course it does not have to be PIT-CNT). Any number of workers can form a union, you do not need some consent of a certain minimal number of workers, and there is no time lag between request to form a union and the labour department giving permission.
Q : What is the situation with contract workers, can they be part of PIT-CNT?
A : Of course they are ! At SUTEL (the union associated to telecommunications, for whom I am the representative) we have recently regularised (made permanent) 2500 workers. 400 contract workers, we still have to regularise. We hope to complete this process in next few months. In construction, all the workers are on contract and they switch from contract to contract between two constructions. However even in the intermediate period, they remain part of PIT-CNT. This gives the workers a tremendous sense of security .
Q : With such a vertical structure, how is the democratic freedom of the workers maintained with in PIT-CNT?
A : This is an interesting question and this is why I said why in my opinion we have a rather unique structure. Even thought PIT-CNT is organizationally verticalised, it does not mean you need to take permission from congress to fight for your rights. Within our constitutional guidelines (which are rather general and refrains workers from engaging in violence e.g) any union members in any factory can start a strike and by definition PIT-CNT supports it. It is only when negotiations do not lead to anything, that the entire organisation enters into the picture.
Q : What is the condition of the working class right now? For example, what is the frequency of strikes in Uruguay in past few years?
A : Well you know that depends mainly on the year. So for example in the budget year, there is always an increase in the number of strikes (almost 10 fold increase!) . This is also expected as employment has been on the rise in the country and with the freedom to make unions, the workers are tremendously organised now. The strikes during national budget years are usually about negotiating increasing salaries.
Q : What are the some of the most pressing issues PIT-CNT is fighting against?
A : Well the most pressing issues are salaries in certain sectors which are just above minimum wage, work safety in certain areas like construction and tertiarization (not employing contract workers directly but through some agency). We are fighting to ban tertiarization when it is in it’s infant stages. There is a law being discussed in the parliament currently about making tertiarization illegal. Interestingly enough in public sector this problem is the worst, but there it is also easier to fight against at least as long as left coalition is in power. There is also an ongoing struggle for equalisation of wages between men and women.
Q : What is the situation of women workers in the country?
A : General employment in Uruguay is 58.8 percent out of which 68.2 percent are men and 50.2 percent are women (as of 2015). So it certainly needs to improve. Difference in salary has been diminishing but it still exists and we have to continue to fight against it. One should note that gender inequality is an inseparable part of capitalist and patriarchal society , and so it will never go away as long as these structures exist.
Q : Is there an active women representation in PIT-CNT? How many of the executive secretaries are women currently?
A : Yes this is a concern. Till the last congress there was not a single women representative, however we actively decided to change this and in the last congress we had our first even woman executive secretary in the congress. We hope this is a sign of things to come. Regarding women’s representation we do have a central commission for gender equality which is part of PIT-CNT. They do not have executive powers but they bring out the issues of gender inequality in front of the congress.
Q : Can you comment on the Foreign Direct Investment in Uruguay? What is PIT-CNT’s position regarding FDI in the country?
A : Yes, there is a lot of FDI although I do not know the exact details. Before 2004, Foreign direct investment was increasing and multi-nationals came here, did what they want, made a lot of money and left. The left government tried to put a curb on such irresponsible behaviour of these companies. There is a law being discussed in the parliament on which there will be a vote soon , under which the companies which arbitrarily decide to leave will be penalised heavily. This will be some kind of insurance our working class will have against these foreign multi-nationals.
Q : What is the average political affiliations of the workers who are with PIT-CNT? Is there an active attempt to educate them politically ?
A : Well in Uruguay first came union of the workers and then came union of the left, so it’s a bit different then many other countries I think. So for example first political left coalition in Uruguay happened in 68 which is in fact two years after the merger of various unions had happened. But yes every year, in every region we conduct classes to educate the workers politically as well as to train them in organisational methods. These classes are voluntary, and you attend if you are interested. They are of course free of cost. Just to give you an idea, we cover topics like course of political formation, an introduction to marxism, history of capitalist development like fordism, taylorism to toyotism. We also teach them history of our union, link between workers and various regional units and methodological guide for actions.