During the 1970s, El Salvador boasted a vast shrimp industry, and nearly all of the 3700 tons that it exported each year made its way to the United States. As shrimp was transitioning away from luxury status, few Americans were likely to give much thought to how the shrimp reached their plates. Fewer still would ever have heard of the story of Puerto el Triunfo – Port Triumph in English– and the drama of the shrimp industry’s rise and fall. Yet now, with consciousness of food at an all-time high, and concerns about fair trade and sustainability much on the public mind, it is time to tell this remarkable story. Puerto el Triunfo is a microcosm that throws into sharp relief some of the most powerful forces shaping Central America, and more broadly, the obstacles facing organized labor world- wide.
In the 1970s, the 1500 organized workers of the port – mostly women – thanks to their struggles and to the profitability of the Salvadoran shrimp industry were amongst the more privileged laborers in the country. By the latter part of the decade, their hopes for a dignified life for their children seemed on the verge of realization. In 1980, brutal state repression eliminated union leaders or drove them into exile. After a few years, the unions reorganized. By the 1990s, however, the collapse of the industry had extinguished the hopes of the port workers. Our story reveals the internal functioning of the unions, including intense gender conflict and sheds light on their early forms of resistance to the neo-liberal inspired transformation of labor relations that emerged on a global scale during the 1980s. Often known as the flexibilization of labor, management typically has striven to cut costs by reducing the permanent labor force to whom it must pay benefits, employing a temporary, “casual,” workers who lack fundamental labor rights. In 1987, the fishermen’s union launched one of the longest strikes in the history of the world labor movement against such management tactics. The collapse of the strike in 1990 coincided with the demise the largest shrimp company in Central America. Puerto el Triunfo will attract viewers in part because of the raw power of the story and because the small-scale intimacy of our tale will put a human face to the impersonal forces of globalization, tropical de-industrialization and environmental decay.