In May 1994, I was present on behalf of the board of the World Federation of Clerical Workers WFCW at the congress of the Federation of Latin American workers in the Commercial Sector, Offices and Private Services Sector FETRALCOS in Panama. It was my first official visit to Latin America since I had become the Executive Secretary of WFCW, a job which I combined with that of Confederal Secretary of the WCL. To the outsider this might be somewhat confusing, but this combination was due to the fact that most International Trade Union Federations (ITF's) affiliated to the WCL had not enough money to finance their own secretariat and to organize international activities. Moreover, as members of the WCL they had the right on secretarial support of the WCL. It was said that such a combination would save money and be more efficient and affordable. In practice, it was difficult for the ITF's to organize their own agenda and to maintain their identity.
The federations in the continents of the Third World were mainly poor, due to lack of payment of dues by its member organizations. Obviously this is the result of poverty in many countries of the Third World, but that is not the only explanation. In the continents, the unions are organized mainly by company and not by sector. In most countries of the Third World and also in Latin America, except perhaps for example in Brazil, Collective Labor Agreements by sector are not allowed and/or recognized legally. Moreover, they are not encouraged by employers and governments. Consequently, the unions do not feel the necessity to organize its members by sector. Of course, unions could act with the aim to change the labor law to make possible sector collective agreements but it seems to have no priority at the trade unions.
As a result, companies can compete on the basis of costs of wages. The only guarantee that this does not degenerate into a race to the bottom are legal minimum wages. But in many Third World countries, many employers do not respect the legal minimum wage and governments are often too weak (or corrupted) to enforce compliance with the legal minimum wage. The result is that there are continuously conflicts in individual companies, what in turn leads to employers to keep unions out of the door as much as possible, if necessary by setting up their own trade union, called the yellow unions. This vicious circle of conflict is hard to break.
|WFCW Vice-President Juana Maria Chireno (Maritza), also president of FETRALCOS, shows proudly the dress she got during the World Congress of the World Federation of Clerical Workers WFCW (now WOW) in Lomé, Togo, 2000|
FETRALCOS in turn is poorer than the other continental confederations because it organizes the economically more weak sectors such as workers in the retail sector and informal workers like street traders and market vendors. FETRALCOS had and has more good will than financial resources. Still, I wanted to investigate at the Congress, if FETRALCOS in spite of its limited resources, would be able to organize its own secretariat, however minimal. Such a secretariat would provide more guarantees for the survival of the organization and conducive to its autonomy and independence.
To illustrate the participants of the Congress how this could be addressed, I made together with the Congress participants a budget for a secretariat: a part-time executive secretary, the rental of a small office, fixed expenses like electricity, water, etc., various office supplies , the initial purchase of furniture, computer, etc. and if it would be possible including a number of activities, like an annual boardmeeting and several missions to affiliated member organizations.
I estimate that we ended up on a budget of around U.S. $ 10,000. The purchase of office furniture and computers had to be financed separately. I thought there was a solution for this with the help of a one-off solidarity contribution of the world organization and / or other solidarity funds. Since there were present at the congress 15 member organizations, every organization would have to pay a contribution of about $ 650 annually. It turned out that no member organization was able to pay such a minimal annual contribution except for maybe one or two unions from Brasil and Argentine.
|Two Vice-Presidents of the World Federation of Clerical Workers WFCW (now WOW) during its World Congress in Lomé, Togo in 2000: Juana Maria (Maritza) Chireno, President of FETRALCOS, and Koffi Chrysante Zounnadjala, Secretary General of the FPE.|
Another way to reduce the costs of the secretariat is to bring it into a financially strong and stable member organization. In such a case, one of the board members of that affiliated trade union could also function as Executive Secretary. In the case of FETRALCOS this was not an option because Juana Maria (Maritza) Chireno, as president of FETRALCOS, had already at its disposal a small office in the UTAL building of CLAT in San Antonio, nearby Caracas.
The cost of missions and statutory meetings were captured on a more informal manner. It is common in Latin America that the participants pay their own travel expenses and the host organization pays the costs of accommodation. But even this is often too expensive for some participants, so it usually requires an extra contribution of sponsors in Latin America, such as a university or the world organization and its network of solidarity funds. On this more or less informal way FETRALCOS could organize activities already for many years.
|In November 1978 I made this photograph of the "corregidor" (alcalde) before the "corregiduria" in a small Panamanian village.|
During my stay in Panama, we also visited the national confederation CGTP, a member organization of CLAT. I made the following notes at the meeting with the executive board of the CGTP:
1. In the conference room are two air conditioners but the windows are broken, so they do not help much.
2. It is a coming and going of people. There is no beginning or end to the meeting. On the other side, a woman writes down the names of those present carefully in a book.
3. One is talking a lot on national politics, especially about the machinations of the presidential candidates and their political tactics. The conversation is more about political power than on the content of politics. Also be told, who belongs to which presidential candidate and how many people a candidate can mobilize.
4. One pays more attention to details than the broad lines of policy.
5. Formality and informality alternate as two sides of the same coin but there is still a system that leads to results whatever the time it may cost.
That there is so much talk about national politics and presidential candidates, can be regarded as a weakness of the trade union movement. Apparently, the trade unions in Panama are not taken seriously by the government and there is no institutional framework through which the unions can express their political desires. That makes it very difficult for the trade unions to participate in the power structure of the state except on an informal way for example through personal contacts with politicians. For trade union leaders this must sometimes be very frustrating.
As usual in Latin America, the talks are endlessly, but it seems no problem for the participants. Apparantly people perceive time differently in Latin America than in Europe, where everything is arranged in hours and time, even leisure time (holidays) is regulated by hour and time. Could that be because time has indeed become money in Europe, while in Panama and the rest of Latin America this is not (yet) so much the case? In any case, in Latin America average people have more time than money. In Europe, the reverse is the case: average people have more money, but they don't have time. You may wonder what makes a man more happy? More time than money or vice versa?