Dominican Republic 1976

Dock Workers Fight for Democratic Rights

Written by: José Pérez;
Published: March 15, 1976;
Source: Intercontinental Press, Vol. 14 No. 10, p.402.
Transcribed by: Amaury Rodriguez,2016.

Transcriber’s note: The Sindicato de Trabajadores Portuarios de Arrimo (POASI – longshoremen’s union) was one of the most combative trade unions in the Dominican Republic. In 1965, POASI mobilized its members in support of the unfolding popular revolt aimed at defeating the 1963 military coup. During the armed conflict, which later became a peoples’ war against US occupying troops, the POASI peoples’ militia (comando popular) was one of the most militant. The post-civil war period saw increasing labor militancy in the midst of state repression under the Balaguer regime (1966-1978). At the end, US-backed Balaguerist state terror accomplished its goal of weakening POASI and the rest of the labor movement. This article appeared in Intercontinental Press (IP), a weekly magazine published in New York on behalf on the Fourth International from 1963 to 1986. I thank Pathfinder Press for granting me permission to post this article.

[The following article appeared in the February 27 issue of the Militant, a revolutionary-socialist newsweekly published in New York.]

Despite the release last December of three labor leaders who had been in jail since last summer, trade-union rights remain in a precarious state in the Dominican Republic.

Nothing illustrates this better than the case of the Sindicato de Trabajadores Portuarios de Arrimo (POASI – longshoremen’s union). [1] The union’s headquarters has been occupied by police since October 1973. In January the Militant interviewed José Martinez Vargas, the legitimate general secretary of POASI. The union leader was visiting the United States to publicize the case of POASI. He met with several trade unionists and civil libertarians here to seek their support for the democratic rights of union members in the Dominican Republic.

Martinez Vargas explained that government attacks against POASI go back a decade. Before the imposition of the Joaquin Balaguer regime following the occupation of the Dominican Republic by 20,000 U.S. Marines, POASI had been the sole long shore union in Santo Domingo, capital of the Caribbean country. However, in 1966 the government passed a law establishing itself as a middleman

between the companies and the long shore workers. Wages were cut through the abolition of a per-hour wage scale and establishment of a per-ton wage scale. The government brought in a “yellow union” and decreed that out of every five ships that come in, three would be handled by POASI and two by the government’s union.

These measures were decreed by the government without warning. “They didn’t even notify us in advance. We found out by reading the newspapers,” Martinez Vargas said. Nevertheless, a struggle was waged against this abrogation of the contract, although the POASI leadership at the time was composed of Balaguer supporters.

In 1971, a new leadership defeated the pro-Balaguer officeholders in the union.

This group, which called itself the Blue Slate, included supporters of various political parties.

The Balaguer government, according to Martinez Vargas, intervened in the election, backing the old leadership, which was called the Red Slate. But the Blue Slate won the election, receiving 750 votes from a total member ship of 1,300. In the following year’s election, the Blue Slate won once again, increasing its total vote to 890.

Elections were to have been held again in 1973, but they coincided with the declaration of a state of emergency by the Balaguer government. The pretext for the declaration was the landing of a band of guerrillas in the country. The leadership of the union decided to call off the scheduled elections. “Under the state of emergency,” Martinez Vargas said, “the members couldn’t campaign because you couldn’t put up posters or you might get shot by the police thinking that you are a subversive.”

Nevertheless, the pro-Balaguer minority in the union went to the secretary of the interior and obtained a promise from him that the election could be held. “Seeing this,” Martinez Vargas continued, “we thought that a whole maneuver

was being planned against us and we decided to hold elections.”

A mass membership meeting was held to pick the commission that would conduct the election. However, before the commission elected by the union ranks had a chance to be certified by the government and schedule the balloting, a rump commission – handpicked by the pro government union minority – registered itself and scheduled an immediate election."We refused to accept that,” Martinez Vargas said, “and the members paid no attention to the rump commission.” The pro government commission had its election. They declared that their Red Slate had won, but most of the union members just ignored them.

“A few days later,” Martinez Vargas continued, “ten busloads of police and guards showed up. They broke the lock on the union headquarters and went inside.” “A number of the officials had been arrested that morning at 3:00 a.m.,” he said, “so the police were able to break into the headquarters without a struggle because there was no leadership.”

Every attempt at a protest was met with government repression. The old leadership of the union was blacklisted from the docks for a year. At one point, forty-five members were in jail. Martinez Vargas himself has been arrested seventeen times since police seized the union headquarters in October 1973. Two other POASI leaders have been forced to leave the country because of the repression and harassment. To this day the imposed leadership has made no attempt to legitimize its rule by trying to function as a leadership that defends the economic interests of the workers. No membership meetings or elections have been held. The headquarters of the union is still occupied by the police. What steps were taken to protest this undemocratic situation? For a long time the membership was demoralized and afraid of the repression, Martinez Vargas said. But in the past year an effective campaign has been mounted.

Fifty-two trade-union organizations in the Dominican Republic – including the Central General de Trabajadores, one of the two trade-union federations in the country, have protested the police occupation of POASI’s headquarters. Last October, 1,200 of POASI’s 1,300 members published an advertisement in a Dominican daily demanding immediate withdrawal of the police from the union headquarters and the holding of free elections. POASI leaders have now extended this campaign to the international arena, obtaining statements of support from unions in various Latin American and

European countries.

In the United States, the defense effort is being coordinated by the U.S. Committee for Justice to Latin American Political Prisoners (USLA)* as a continuation of the work that group carried out on behalf of the three union officials who had been jailed.


* In the original text, the magazine provides USLA’s address: 853 Broadway, New York, New York 10003.

1. Sindicato de Trabajadores Portuarios de Arrimo (POASI) appears as Sindicato de Portuarios de Arrimo in the original text.