Labor Union Conflict Ends In Death of SUNTRACS Activist
Tuesday, August 14 2007 @ 06:55 pm EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
Brewing Confrontation: SUNTRACS has been the dominant labor union of construction workers for years. I have talked to the labor union leaders on many occasions in the past few months, usually in regards to some kind of a demonstration related to construction site safety and security. Many construction workers have lost their lives, the most recent in a cave-in of an excavation pit at the job site of the Tower 7400 in San Francisco.
Not A SUNTRACS Job Site: The day after the four workers were killed a SUNTRACS labor union leader showed up at the job site and was unceremoniously expelled (thrown out) by the workers at the site. One of them said "get the hell out of here. You don't care about the workers. The only thing you care about is collecting your 2% union dues." And, they threw the guy out.
Not So Fast: Later that very day the same SUNTRACS labor union leader returned with a band of about thirty or forty construction workers armed with hammers. They broke into the job site and basically took it over in a show of force. The job site of the Tower 7400 was organized by the SINDICOP union, not SUNTRACS.
Why The Conflict: Money. The labor unions charge a 2% union dues based on the pay of all of the construction workers they have signed up and organized. It is estimated that in 2007 alone SUNTRACS will be collecting some $20 million dollars in labor union dues making them one of the best funded organizations in the country. There's a lot of construction going on now, and there will be more once the expansion of the Panama Canal gets going full swing. Whoever has the labor force organized will get 2% of the payroll. There are really big bucks at stake.
Want To Start A Labor Union? The only thing you need is forty workers to sign up and you can start your own labor union. On several occasions in the past I have wandered into job sites and started asking the workers what they thought about SUNTRACS. The answer that I get back is generally the same - they are more interested in their own political agenda than the rights and welfare of the workers. More and more often workers are electing to join the growing labor union SINDICOP as an alternative.
This Can't Stand: When the Brazilian company Norberto Odebrecht won the $216 million dollar contract to extend the Northern Corridor to Colon, the company had apparently done their homework with regards to SUNTRACS and labor unions. If you remember, SUNTRACS shut down construction at the Red Frog Beach Club, trying to force the company to comply with the standards the union had negotiated with the La Cámara Panameña de la Construcción (Panamanian Construction Board) (CAPAC), even though the Red Frog Beach Club was not a member of CAPAC. More and more construction developers have been opting to encourage labor organization by the less militant and easier to deal with SINDICOP as a way to keep SUNTRACS out of their hair. So, when Norberto Odebrecht went with SINDICOP on a big public contract, SUNTRACS had to do something.
Fired For Being SUNTRACS: According to the leaders of SUNTRACS in a press conference this morning, two workers were fired from the Norberto Odebrecht job site because they refused to join the SINDICOP union. So this morning a group of SUNTRACS labor union leaders went to the offices of Norberto Odebrecht to protest. Early in the morning, at about 7:45 am, gunfire broke out between the two groups. Yesterday in conflicts between SUNTRACS and SINDICOP labor union members, one SUNTRACS member was stabbed in the legs. So, most likely, this morning both sides were armed for battle and looking for a confrontation. The violence escalated.
Where Were The Cops? Right there. When the conflict started there were a handful of cops assigned to cover the protest, but the numbers present were more for traffic control than anything else. I saw the cell phone video of the exchange of gunfire on the news this evening, and it's hard to tell exactly who is shooting at who, and its impossible to tell who shot first. What was clear from some news camera footage was that there were guns on both sides. According to witnesses, Osvaldo Lorenzo, the guy who was shot and killed in this exchange, was standing some 40 yards away from the entrance to the Norberto Odebrecht compound when he was struck in the left part of his chest by a bullet. His SUNTRACS companions put him in a police vehicle to be transported to the Ministry of Health (MINSA) clinic in Chilibre but he was already dead.
Scatter... The police rounded up some 32 people at the scene in order to investigate the incident. At of 6:30 pm this evening there were still some ten SINDICOP workers being held as the investigation continues and apparently the rest had been released. A field supervisor from the private security company Atlantic Pacific Security, responsible for providing security to the installations of the Norberto Odebrecht company in Chilibre, categorically denied that any of this security officers had been involved in the exchange of gunfire. And apparently the National Police agreed and none of the security guards from the private security company were detained.
"Hired Assassins" According to SUNTRACS, Osvaldo Lorenzo was killed by a "hired assassin" paid for by the construction company to kill him, a statement which I consider to be absurd. This confrontation appears to be a conflict between labor unions, a battle for turf and dominance which spiraled out of control and resulted in the unfortunate death of one of the protesters who was present. I saw the guy who was apparently doing the shooting on video tape, and he was about as far from a "hired assassin" as you can get. He was running and shooting in the general direction of the SUNTRACS guys, firing a handgun on the move from a single-hand, unsupported, extended arm grip. And, the guy he shot was at least 50 yards away. It was certainly not an aimed shot, and it was just very unlucky for Osvaldo Lorenzo who took the random bullet. It could have been any of them.
He Was Not Supposed To Be There: This afternoon there was a press conference with Panama's Minister of Government and Justice Olga Golcher, and the Minister of Labor Reynaldo Rivera. Minister Rivera produced documents filed by the SUNTRACS requesting permission for fourteen SUNTRACS workers to attend a week-long series of seminars. According to the documents filed with the Ministry of Labor by SUNTRACS, Osvaldo Lorenzo and the other workers were supposed to be attending a seminar about construction workplace safety. You see, if the construction workers are going to be attending some kind of SUNTRACS organized event, then they have to file paperwork with the Ministry of Labor and basically get permission for the worker to be off the job. What SUNTRACS does is use these workers as their shock-troops to demonstrate in areas like the Norberto Odebrecht compound in Chilibre. Whatever job site Osvaldo Lorenzo was supposed to be working on, his SUNTRACS buddies got him and thirteen other guys off of the job for the entire week, paid for by the construction company where they are employed.
Demonstrations Close To The Job: SUNTRACS demonstrations are usually short-lived with short-legs. The workers come down out of the building they are working on for ten or fifteen minutes, usually spending one of their rest breaks to block a street for awhile, wave flags, and bitch. Then when their break is over they just go back to work. If they missed work to protest then the company can dock them for time missed. And, they might want to make a statement, but the priority is on getting paid. So, these SUNTRACS "seminars" offer them a way to get reinforcements off of the job sites and to places where they are not organized such as the Norberto Odebrecht job site.
The Coming Storm: Minister of Government and Justice Olga Golcher said in today's press conference said that the government respects freedom of expression but not violence. She made a call to labor union leaders from both sides to make use of the Ministry of Labor in order to file any kind of complaint, but that the government will not allow these kinds of confrontations between competing labor unions to continue. She said "the National Police have doubled their vigilance" in the face of the unfortunate acts of this morning. She said the Panamanian people deserve peace on the streets, and indicated that there would be low tolerance for violent street protests.
SUNTRACS Meeting Tomorrow: The national leadership of the SUNTRACS organization will hold an "emergency meeting" tomorrow morning, and they have already announced a march for Thursday afternoon that will start at the Parque Porras and end at the Presidency. This afternoon there were several spontaneous street closings by SUNTRACS workers, most notably on Via Israel near the Atlapa Convention Center. Expect protests and demonstrations during the week.
How To Avoid A SUNTRACS Demonstration: You can't. There are about 100 construction sites all over Panama City, and about half of them (maybe less) are organized by SUNTRACS. If you happen to wander into a demonstration don't try to go through. Let them know that you will respect their decision to block the street and will back up to leave the area. If you do that, you should not have much of a problem. If you try to force your way through you might get hurt. If you can't move, then just park and wait it out. And obviously if you are seriously concerned about your personal safety and welfare then all bets are off and do what you have to do in order to save your ass.
Efforts to Destabilize Panama: Sure, it's about the money, but the same little group of guys have been behind every demonstration, for the CSS administration workers last year, the teachers strike, the college students who were protesting at the Public Ministry when the three current and former CSS directors were arrested, etc. There is a coordinated effort behind these protests to destabilize Panama politically, and in fact the SUNTRACS guys should never have been at the Norberto Odebrecht job site to provoke the confrontation with the SINDICOP workers.
Not Going To Go Away: With all of the billions of dollars that are going to be spent on construction projects in Panama, this issue is going to become more important rather than less important in the future. It really is mostly about money, power, influence, and control.
Guys On The Street: One of the easiest things to find in Panama is a construction worker who is on his way home. This afternoon, after having spent the day looking into this story, I topped it off with a series of impromptu street interviews with construction workers about the situation. Basically, they have the perception that the SINDICOP guys (who they call the "yellow hat" union) are "owned by the company." SUNTRACS has spread the message that their competition SINDICOP is bought and paid for by the job site owners. I asked them if they knew that SINDICOP has existed since 9 October 2000 and is a valid alternative to SUNTRACS, they didn't. It seems like the only thing they really knew about the surrounding political struggle, they had gotten from their labor leaders. There was not a whole lot of independent thought going on, but rather parroting from SUNTRACS.
Osvaldo Lorenzo As SUNTRACS' Martyr: Expect a significant increase in street protests as SUNTRACS makes their voice heard. Hopefully the police will identify and arrest the guy who killed Osvaldo Lorenzo quickly, which will go a long way toward defusing the situation. Ironically, SUNTRACS will probably go out and raise hell on the streets, which will probably end up back firing and driving more people to join SINDICOP. Remember, the leadership of SUNTRACS is widely held among the union rank and file to be utterly corrupt and only concerned about lining their own pockets, and the guys with working brains can see them for what they are. This conflict between SUNTRACS and SINDICOP will be a topic of conversation for years to come. Crap...
Copyright 2007, by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. As usual, go ahead and use whatever you want as long as you credit the source. Salud.