Uruguay Braces for General Strike as Unions Press Demands

Uruguay is preparing for its first full-day general strike in seven years on Thursday as the country’s large unions flex their muscle ahead of salary and budget talks.

Under the slogan “If workers do well, the country does well,” the PIT-CNT trade union confederation is urging its more than 400,000 members and nonunionized workers to put down tools for 24 hours.

“It’s not a strike against the government. It’s a strike against some measures the government has taken that we believe go against the democratic advances this same government promoted,” Fernando Pereira, PIT-CNT chairman, said in a Monday interview at the confederation’s Montevideo headquarters.

President Tabare Vazquez’s private sector salary guidelines and the silence surrounding public sector wages before the administration submits its five-year budget bill to Congress on Aug. 31 are negative signals, he said.

The general strike also comes as Vazquez seeks to narrow a fiscal deficit while fulfilling expensive campaign promises and boosting spending on public works to revive the economy. After growth averaged 5 percent a year between 2010 and 2014 thanks to record commodity prices and foreign investment, the government expects the economy to grow at 2.7 percent a year through 2019.

A soft economy, wage talks, and political wrangling over the budget are fueling levels of labor unrest not seen since the mid-1990s. Uruguay lost 504,577 man-days to 66 labor conflicts during the first half of the year, according to a report by the Catholic University of Uruguay.

Sector strikes will probably be far more damaging to the economy than Thursday’s stoppage, said Juan Manuel Rodríguez, director of the Catholic University’s Labor Relations Institute.

“They could be prolonged and eventually affect production and the business cycle,” Rodríguez said in a telephone interview.

Finance Minister Danilo Astori declined to comment on the general strike at a news conference on Monday.

Wage Talks

Representatives from the government, businesses, and unions are due to negotiate 212 collective bargaining agreements that are up for renewal this year and next.

The Vazquez administration has said it will impose its salary criteria, which include three-year pacts and raises of 6 percent to 10 percent, if employers and unions can’t reach a deal. Those wage guidelines have the backing of Uruguay’s leading manufacturing group, the Industrial Chamber of Uruguay.

PIT-CNT will seek inflation-adjusted pay raises similar to economic growth, said Pereira, who predicted a year of labor conflicts if salary talks drag on.

“If a country’s wealth grows at 3 percent a year, workers’ salaries should grow at the same rate,” he said.

Uruguay’s annual inflation rate rose for a fifth month in July to 9.02 percent, above the central bank’s 3 percent to 7 percent target.

Membership Drive

With more than one in five Uruguayan workers already belonging to a union, PIT-CNT’s clout could swell if its campaign to unionize maids, farm hands and other service sector jobs pans out. The confederation wants to increase membership to 500,000 in three years, from just 130,000 in 2003, Pereira said.

“Nobody negotiates with weaklings. You either build strength or complaints. We opted to build strength,” he said.

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