Trade Unions in Latin America
With its roots in the guilds of the European Middle Ages, trade unions have historically emerged as organizations which collectively represent workers' interests within local, regional, sectoral and national textures of labor regulation (labor market access, wages, employment conditions, training, horizontal and vertical mobility, individual and collective participation rights, etc.). While regional similarities within the concrete shape of unions generally exist, there are few common characteristics of trade unions in the Americas as a continent; due to contrasting patterns of economic and industrial history and development, the USA and Canada differ substantially from the Latin American countries.
The main focal points of engagement of US as well as Canadian unions today lie in - normally decentralized - collective bargaining. Here, it is important to note that the US trade union movement has historically had a major impact on their Canadian counterpart. For example, until the third quarter of the 20th century, a significant part of the Canadian workforce was represented by American-based craft and industrial unions. As well as in most Western countries, union membership has been in decline during the past decades. Recent attempts of coalition building with social movements (e.g. ‘Strategic Unionism’) can also be understood against this background. Although such alliances can influence the processes of public decision-making, unions in the North of the continent tend not to be as strongly integrated into the political system as is the case in Latin America. Moreover, as traditionally market driven economies, both the US and Canada stand out through a rather conflictive system of labor regulation, which leads to comparatively frequent strike activities. With a total unionized workforce of approximately 16 million, union density in the US is relatively small, amounting to a total of about 12 %, with a significantly higher share in the public sector (over one third) than in the private sector of the economy (8%). Except for cases like Nevada and California, union density tends to reach higher degrees in the northeastern states. This reflects the historical centers of industrial activities, the union-friendly ‘closed shop’ principle in the early industrialized states, and the ‘rights to work’ policies in southern and western states of the USA. Increasing capital mobility and international competition as well as structural sector changes towards service economies are challenging trade unions in the USA and Canada to develop new politics of organizing and collective bargaining and to cooperate with social movements and other parts of civil society.
Countries in Latin America have experienced economic modernization and industrialization almost a century later. In many countries, like those of Central America and the Andes have still not developed significant industrial capacity. Under conditions of ‘structural heterogeneity’ and strong state-influenced policies of ‘industrialization led by import substitution’, trade unions in most Latin American countries grew mainly 'from above', often working as development agents of an authoritarian state representing only a small sector of the working population, often concentrated in the public or state spheres. Here, unions built their power bases on significant membership as well as strong institutional foundation in legislation. Workers of the informal economy – reflecting around half to two thirds of the active economic population in almost all Latin American countries – are traditionally neither approached nor organized by trade unions. General characteristics among union organizations in Latin America are: (a) a wide variety of ideologies and national confederations, ranging from left-wing anarcho-syndicalism over religious orientations to employer-driven pseudo-representation, (b) a high fragmentation between company-based, local, regional and / or national unions, (c) a relatively strong legal basis but weak actual power of union organizations, (d) strong interference of the state in registering / legalizing unions and recognizing collective agreements. Differing from North America, Latin American unions historically tend to be much more integrated into the broader political systems of their countries, e.g. in the cases of Peronist Argentina, Mexican caudillismo and charrismo or ‘Vargist’ unionism in Brazil.
Since, on a meso level, Latin American unions show very heterogeneous structures and orientations and national structures of negotiations tend not to be very capable, significant development could derive from company-level representation initiatives. Because a relevant precondition for the stronger integration of Latin America into the world market would be the strengthening of small and medium-sized businesses, engagement in cross-border production systems as well as reformation and enhancement of educational systems to provide the necessary local workforce could constitute other significant fields of union activity, not only in Brazil, but also in other growing economies like Mexico, Chile or Argentina. Another challenge for trade unions is connecting with other social movements in their national and regional environment.
Ludger Pries and Martin Seeliger
Please cite as:
Pries, Ludger and Martin Seeliger. 2012. “Trade Unions in Latin America.” Online Dictionary Social and Political Key Terms of the Americas: Politics, Inequalities, and North-South Relations, Version 1.0 (2012). http://elearning.uni-bielefeld.de/wikifarm/fields/ges_cias/field.php/Main/Unterkapitel201.
Dombois, Rainer / Pries, Ludger, 1999: Relaciones Laborales entre Mercado y Estado: Nuevos régimenes de Trabajo en la Transformación Latinoamericana, Caracas: Nueva Sociedad
Kaufman, Bruce E., 2004: The global evolution of industrial relations, Geneva: International Labour Office
Morley, Michael J. / Gunnigle, Patrick / Collings, David G. 2006: Global Industrial Relations, London / New York: Routledge
Zapata, Francisco, 1993: Autonomía y subordinación en el sindicalismo latinoamericano, México: El Colegio de México/Fondo de Cultura Económica