Prospects for Trade Union Revitalization in the Public Sector: Bolivia and Peru

The privatization of public water utilities has been one of the most controversial aspects of neoliberal restructuring in the late 20th century. Powerful social movements that aim to protect water from corporate control have emerged across the planet, particularly in the global South. Since water privatization affects people from all walks of life many protests have been organized by broad-scale social movement coalitions which have included labour, environmental, consumer, social justice and indigenous groups. While public sector workers—arguably one of the constituencies most affected by water privatization policies—have participated in many of these coalitions, they have also played a controversial role. Preliminary research on workers’ responses in Latin America demonstrates that labour unions have employed a variety of strategies when faced with the privatization of public services, including active support and resistance (De la Garza Toledo 1991; Ducheim 1998; Murillo 2001; Novelli 2004). 
Based on two case studies from Peru and Bolivia, this paper investigates why certain unions of water workers and not others have sought to form deep coalitions with community groups when confronted by privatization. Although in both cases, trade unions decided to participate in coalitions with community groups, the political strategy of forming “deep coalitions” (Tattersall 2005) has emerged as a conscious practice in the case of the water workers’ union in Peru but not in Bolivia. Drawing from Kim Voss and Rachel Sherman’s (2000) study of revitalization amongst service unions in northern California, the paper argues that the reactions of these two public sector unions can be explained as the result of three factors. First, in both cases there have been internal crises which have led to new leadership. Second, these new leaders who come from outside the labour movement see decline as a mandate for change. Only in the Peruvian case, however, has there been a strong union federation at the national level which supports innovative organizing practices. 
The first part of the paper discusses the prospects for building labour-community coalitions in the water sector in order to engage with current debates on union revitalization and renewal. The second part of the paper contrasts the experiences of anti-privatization coalitions in Huancayo, Peru and Cochabamba, Bolivia. Research for this paper is based upon a review of trade union documentation, and observation of events organized by trade unions between February and May 2008 in Bolivia and Peru, as well as and 24 formal interviews with trade union and community leaders.
Water Privatization and the Prospects for Trade Union Revitalization in the Public Sector: Case Studies from Bolivia and Peru
By Susan Spronk, "Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society" (Volume 14, Autumn 2009)