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Labor History of Guatemala

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The history of Guatemala is one of persistent exploitation and, conversely, determination on the part of the people to turn the tables.  The Mayan people were conquered by Spain´s Pedro de Alvarado in the first half of the 16th century, and it wasn´t until September 15, 1821 that Guatemala gained its independence from Spain.


Since Guatemala´s independence its people have continued to struggle to secure their own rights to participate politically in their country.  The first guilds and unions were formed among craftspeople and railroad, banana, and port workers in the 1920s, and the national Department of Labor was created in 1925, but with restrictions placed on striking workers.


¨Unions came under attack during the fourteen-year presidency of General Jorge Ubico, from 1930 to 1944.  During that time, the words ´union´, ´worker´, ´strike´, and ´labor rights´ were outlawed from everyday vocabulary.  People who used them were considered communists and were subject to severe punishment; many were jailed.¨


The ten years from 1944 to 1954 are often referred to as the ¨ten years of Guatemalan spring.¨  In 1944, Juan Jorge Arévalo won a land-slide victory on the platform of ¨spiritual socialism¨.  The new constitution gave the vote to all adults and Arévalo´s campaigns included social welfare programs, the building of schools and hospitals, a literary campaign, and workers´ rights to representation and to strike were expanded.  Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala´s next popularly elected president, set about to enact land reform, and action that was a direct threat to the American corporations that dominated the political landscape of the country.  Arbenz, supported by peasants, students, and unions, signed in the Law of Agrarian Reform in July of 1952.  As a result of the reforms, idle and state-owned land was distributed to over 100,000 families and the United Fruit Company from the U.S. lost over half of its property.  The CIA of the U.S., whose director was on the UFC board, supported the deposing of Arbenz and coordinated the coup that ousted him in 1954. ¨The many gains won during those years included an eight-hour workday, minimum wages, regulation of child and women’s labor, paid vacations, the right to organize, collective bargaining and strike power, labor courts for settling disputes, and a national social security system. 


The beginning of the guerilla war in the 1960s that would continue until 1996 was a time of ups and downs in the strength of unions.  When President Arbenz was forced from power and replaced by Colonel Carlos Castillas Armas, “all recognized unions were disbanded, leaders were jailed and executed, and peasant organizing was outlawed… the CIA drew up a list of seventy thousand ‘political suspects,’ which included many unionists.  By 1961, only 50 unions were registered.  Unions were prohibited from participating in politics, and justifications for striking were severely limited.”  The 1970s, however, saw an increase in industrialization as well as union participation.  In 1976, the National Committee of Union Unity was formed.  In 1984 and 1985 hundreds of unionists occupied a Coca-Cola bottling plant that was going to illegally shut down, and over a year later the union won and the factory remained open. 


Political assassinations were so commonplace during the Internal Armed Conflict that the leadership of most unions were either killed outright or forced into exile.  Despite the 1996 signing of the Peace Accords, organized labor in Guatemala is still feeling the effects of so many years of oppression and opposition and continue to struggle daily to secure their rights to employment, fair wages and livable working conditions.



Reed, Thomas F. And Brandow, Karen. The Sky Never Changes: Testimonies from the Guatemalan Labor Movement (Cornell University Press: New York, 1996).

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