Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991
ATC interviews Barbara Harvey
Barbara Harvey is a Detroit labor and civil rights attorney. She visited the Dominican Republic during the last week in July as National Lawyers’ Guild representative on delegation, organized by Local 1199, to serve a general strike called by the Centrale de Trabajadores Unitarios (CTU). Against the Current interviewed her after her return. As the interview demonstrates, workers in the Dominican Republic face a desperate situation and are urgently in need of financial assistance from U.S. unions and other supporters.
Against the Current: To begin, tell us about the issues in the strike and about the CFU.
Barbara Harvey: This latest strike began Monday, July 29. It was supposed to las three days but had to be called off 01 Tuesday when it became apparent i wasn’t holding. An earlier general strike on July 9-10 was 99% successful, surprising even the union: Not only did all the workers refuse to report for work, but doctors closed their offices, consumer refused to shop and people even refuse to buy lottery tickets, costing the govern ment $20 million in lottery sales alone.
That strike ended after 48 hours even though people wanted to continue because the leadership felt the population couldn’t sustain the sacrifice. In retrospect they felt that decision might have been a mistake. In this latest strike the timing was bad, because Tuesday was a payday and people just couldn’t afford not to get their pay.
The strikes seem to be organized geographically, rather than by industry. Reports come in to union headquarters on how it’s going street by street This indicates tome—although it’s speculation on my part—a tremendous grassroots mobilization. People seemed to be very well-instructed on how to deal with various contingencies and didn’t need a lot of contact with headquarters.
As far as! know, the CIU represents all the major unions in the country, regardless of politics. It is a remarkable development, representing a conscious decision of all the unions, after many years of factionalism, that they would set aside political differences and work together to improve economic conditions for all their members. This was the explanation given to us by Jacinto de los Santos, the CFU’s president, when we asked if they had any political platform to get rid of the Balaguer government.
That’s not to say that the strike issue doesn’t also involve politics. One of the demands of the strike was the reinstatement of 2,800 electrical workers—the entire unionized work force—who were fired in November 1990 by the presider of the state electrical company, Ramon Perez Martinez. This is a sinister character who headed a terrorist youth group called BANDA that was instrumental if Balaguer’s return to power.
[Joaquin Balaguer was initially is stalled in power during the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. H made a comeback in the 1986 nation: elections. He was elected president agar in 1990—ed.]
Martinez is also one of five advisor who actually run the government of Balaguer, who is now 82 years old and blind The mass firing of the electrical worker led to a lot of disruption—three strikes including two general strikes—and Balaguer actually told Martinez to reinstate the workers. But he either refused or just didn’t do it.
In the July 9-10 strike, there were over400 arrests. This last time, the army’ action was more subdued. They arrestec key organizers at the most crucial stage just before the strike. Jacinto de los Santos was yanked off TV while announcing strike plans and arrested on the spot
Ignacio Soto, the general secretary of the electrical workers union SITRA-CODE, was our delegation’s host He has a hole in the top of his head from a beating administered by Martinez’s people in August 1990. Martinez, who had promised to destroy the union within twenty days, brought the army and the Police into the electrical company. On August 23, 1990 the union called an emergency meeting. They were surrounded in their own headquarters for thirty hours until the church intervened.
As they left, the army fired on them, causing a number of injuries. That November all the workers were fired and cabs were brought in. There are daily electricaJ blackouts, and have been for ‘ears—the only place not affected by hernia where Balaguer lives, along with the other buildings on the same circuit.
ATC: What are some of the other economic strike issues and social conditions? BH: The strikers demanded a general 100% wage increase. In June Balaguer offered 20%, which I think triggered the two-day strike in July. Inflation in the past year was 106%. Since Balaguer came back to power in 1986, inflation has been three hundred percent; before that it was 9.6% per year.
He printed 7 billion pesos of “inorganic money” to finance construction projects—which are unfinished—but nothing was invested in production, so there was wild spending on imported goods. Now Balaguer has signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that will result in a 15-25% increase in the price of imported goods—and everything is imported. Including sugar—they export it and then import what they need to consume!
Other strike demands include provisions of medical supplies. We visited the public children’s hospital in Santo Domingo. It was mostly empty. Only emergency cases were being admitted. We were told that 12-14 children die there per day; it used to be one or two. The hospital is affected by the blackouts children in incubators die if the blackout lasts a few minutes too long. I went to the bathroom and there was filthy standing water on the floor.
Doctors in the public sector have been on strike for three months. They get paid so little they can’t survive. The doctors’ union (AMD) has 10,000 members, 6,000 of whom are on strike. Their union, by the way, is 100 years old.
The rich who get sick go to private hospitals or to the United States; the poor simply die. The public hospitals lack medicine—including aspirin, syringes, and cotton. Some are even growing their own cotton on the grounds! The doctors, like the teachers, are very poorly paid, so I guess it’s not surprising that in both Professions many are women. The head of the doctors’ union is Altagracia Gus-man; she told us they are fearful of an outbreak of cholera.
While we were there, the CTU received messages of support from every electrical workers’ union in from Amerca, as well as the UE. But in the U.S.English-language press, all this is unknown. It’s noteworthy that 80% of the workers ii the free trade zones supported the strike, which surprised even the CTU, because those are among the best-paid workers in the country and unionization is illegal in the free trade zones.
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September/October 1991, ATC 34