Thursday, July 20, 2017

40th Anniversary of the General Strike of 1977

Last week I attended a commemorative meeting marking the 40th anniversary of the nationwide general strike of July 19, 1977.

At the rally at Plaza San Martin, the previous week, someone had handed me a flyer for the event, and it immediately piqued my interest because I distinctly remember the strike.

At the time, Peru was ruled by a military junta presided by Gen. Francisco Morales Bermúdez. Morales Bermúdez and his allies had, a couple of years earlier, deposed his predecessor, Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado.  They then set about undoing the structural and social reforms initiated by Velasco. They introduced monetary adjustments which dealt severe blows to people's standard of living, at the same time that they froze wages and let prices rise. They countered protest of these measures with states of emergency, night-time curfews, jailings, exile, and worse.

I was in grade school at the time. I remember that things were tense in the days leading up to the general strike, and everyone wondered how big the walk-out would be, how successful.

I have vivid recollection that on the morning of the 19th Lima, then a city of almost five million people, seemed absolutely silent and still. Not one store was open, not one bus or taxi circulated. No one, it seemed, went to work that day. 

Photo from a display at the event.

Speakers at the event, held at the headquarters of Patria Roja --one of Peru's largest communist parties-- explained how 23 unions had decided to work together and established a unitary struggle committee at a secret meeting at the offices of the water utility workers' union.

They talked about how the struggle committee --which even included the government-sponsored state employees union!-- reached out by word-of-mouth to other unions and tried to bring them on board, first to the idea of a national one-day general strike, and then to the specific date.  All of this, of course, had to be done clandestinely.  The risks were highlighted by the fact that 18 unionists had already lost their lives to the repression in the first half of the year.

As it was, the government arrested many top union leaders and leftist party leaders in an effort to thwart the strike organizing and to cow the movement into submission. It did not work, of course.

The strike was nearly total and paralyzed the country. The people, and specially the working class, had flexed its muscle. In one day the military lost all claim to legitimacy and popular support.  Within a year it had begun the process of transitioning the country back toward representative democracy, with elections to a Constituent Assembly.

Those were heady days, which I well remember. We all, even us middle-class children, felt that the return to democracy was also our victory.

However, as Alfredo Velásquez --then head of the public school teachers union (SUTEP), and part of the joint struggle committee-- explained, the workers' movement paid a heavy price for having spearheaded the opposition to the military regime.  On the day of the strike a number of workers and peasants lost their live in Lima and in other cities, including 13 marchers who were gunned down in the Lima district of Comas.  In the days following the strike the military government passed a law authorizing the summary firing of workers, and in one swoop over 4000 unionized workers were dismissed, decapitating nearly every industrial union in the country. It was a blow, Velásquez said, from which the Peruvian labor movement has never recovered.

Unionists who participated in the strike pose for a group photo.

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