Solidarismo: Costa Rica’s Key to Happiness or Sham Union?

I grew up unabashedly pro-union, and I’m thankful that my nurse and teacher friends have health insurance and strong wages thanks to collective bargaining.

That’s not to say unions are perfect. Stories of teacher’s unions with sharply misaligned priorities and New York City’s infamous rubber room certainly give me pause. But no system is perfect, and unions certainly do a good job protecting workers’ rights even if they do involve some overspending and perverse incentives here and there.

Benefits of Unionization

The benefits of unionization for workers do tend to swing on two rights: the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike. The assumption is that the individual is vulnerable but the group is powerful, which is especially important in the case of international farm workers– a very vulnerable population.

The union negotiation system also assumes that relationships between workers and management are adversarial and that without banding together, workers would not be treated fairly.

It’s that last assumption that Costa Rica is bucking with the Solidarismo system, which I encountered on a recent press trip to Costa Rica (sponsored by Dole).

The purpose of the trip was to explore the environmental challenges of banana and pineapple production, but the issue of Costa Rica’s alternative to the union came up almost immediately.

Solidarismo: a Collaborative Union?

Dole representatives were quick to explain Solidarismo as a more collegial form of union, where workers and employers recognize their mutual benefit and operate collectively via a small group of elected workers (the permanent committee) which does some bargaining on behalf of the larger group. Rudy Amador, Director of Quality, Environmental and Food Safety Affairs (who works out of Dole Costa Rica and led the trip) said “Solidarismo is less adversarial than a typical union, it’s a system based on mutual respect where each side recognizes it needs the other”

Sounds pretty good to me. A less adversarial system is probably a good way to reduce wasteful spending.

However, the main purpose of Solidarismo is not wage negotiation, that’s a small side benefit. These groups are better described as a collective support network. Workers invest a percentage of their salaries, matched by the company, and the pot of money is used to fund schools, a doctor onsite, pay for busses and the like. Said Sylvain Cuperlier, Dole’s VP and Director of Worldwide CSR, “Solidarismo is hard to describe, and it has come under criticism from the international press because they don’t understand. But it works for us.”

Doctors, schools, and subsidized transportation are all certainly good things. But are they all a worker needs?

When we got back on the bus, I asked one of my fellow participants, the Director of a Costa Rican NGO, if this happy, feel good approach to worker engagement was for real. I had an open mind, after all, this is the happiest country on earth! Perhaps the Costa Ricans had discovered a more enlightened path to employee engagement. “It’s all well and good,” she quipped “except they’re not allowed to strike.”

Ahh.

So let’s delve a little bit into how this system operates and how it differs from a traditional union:

The History of Solidarismo

The Solidarismo was invented in the 1980s by banana plantation owners as an alternative to the negative, battle-like worker engagement that was the norm at the time. Solidarismo was called ‘paz laboral’’ – peaceful labor relations. But they were invented by – and imposed by – management.

A Solidarista Association is a legal form of workers’ association. The Associations are partly funded by the companies and partly by deductions from the workers’ wages. Initially, 5% of the worker’s wage is deducted and matched by the employer from company funds, creating a huge pool of cash…. Some associations also run shops inside or nearby the banana plantations. Solidarista Associations also provide a range of activities including social, cultural and sporting events. (source)

Sounds good so far, all the social and community engagement is all ok with me. But here’s the rub:

Solidarista associations sign so-called arreglos directos – ‘direct agreements’ – with management, covering wages, piece-rates and some health and safety issues. In contrast to negotiations between a union and employers, the Solidarista Associations do not challenge the company on core issues such as wages and working conditions nor do they attempt to address grievances or defend individual or collective workers’ rights. (source)

The Limitations of the Permanent Committee

Any wage negotiations are dealt with via the “Permanent Committee,” a group of a handful of workers elected by the Solidarismo to represent their interests in meetings with management. Can a tiny percentage of employees (3-4 out of the thousands) really effectively bargain as collectively as a whole group of unionized workers? Probably not.

That obviously leaves a pretty big hole through which workers’ protections can fall. The Costa Rican banana pickers make an average of $14/day. A paltry sum, but it’s 40% above the minimum wage.

It’s easy to see why the international labor community would have a big beef with these organizations.

Costa Rica has ratified both international conventions on human rights – the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR).

That means that human rights advocates have an means to protest Solidarismo, which they believe violate international standards. Human rights organizations have filed a series of complaints against Costa Rica at the International Labour Organization (ILO) regarding the core conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, deeming the Solidarismo and Permanent Committee systems to be inadequate to meet the terms of those conventions.

There have indeed been abuses of the system over the years, for example, 200 textile workers at Tres Rios Textiles were fired when they tried to organize in 1989.

With that said, many of the examples cited by the anti-solidarismo crowd are quite outdated. Unless the workers are truly under widespread intimidation so bad no one will even talk about it, the Solidarismo system does seem to be working for the most part, at least to meet some worker needs. I found it difficult to unearth recent examples of misuse.

The pro-labor community is pretty stuck on the fact that Solidarismo is a bad thing, but that can’t be totally true when (in the case of Costa Rica) the workers are happier than all other workers on the planet. If unions are the only key to worker protections, how can that be?

Consider this.

Costa Rica Scores #1 on Measures of Happiness

For several years in a row, Costa Ricans have been rated the happiest people in the world by the Happy Planet Index, which rates countries on the basis of life expectancy, reported life satisfaction, and the ecological footprint of the residents. Costa Rica has come out on top for several years running. (The US, comparatively, ranks 114th).

Yes, happiness is quite difficult to measure. It’s a measure of how you’re doing compared to how you expected to be doing. It’s relative not absolute. But that doesn’t make it invalid or unimportant. In fact, it’s a much better measure of wellbeing than GDP.

So what we’ve got is a population that doesn’t technically have the rights the ILO deems minimal, yet, they’re pretty well off. Could it be that the more collaborative system is working to some degree?

My Final Take

Unions are not a panacea for healthy happy workers, as evidenced by the low wages Costa Rican banana workers receive relative to their country wide bliss.

On the trip I recently took (full disclosure: paid for by Dole), there is no question that Dole Corporate worked hard to ensure we’d be well taken care of and encounter employees who felt positively about the company. But, one group of trip organizers can’t have complete control in every in-country interaction. I was sincerely impressed with the pride, openness, and happiness of everyone I encountered- from the VP of Sustainability all the way down to the pineapple pickers. Not to mention the Costa Rican participants on the trip who represented local and international non-profits and the Costa Rican service workers I encountered. These people *are* happy and more generally well satisfied with life than your average American.

After all this research, I’ve got to say it seems like the Solidarismo system is working pretty well, at least as well as many more formal union systems. That is, if one measure of worker rights include the right to happiness and wellbeing, healthcare, and fair wages (all of which the Costa Rican farm laborers currently have).

Fair Trade Alternatives

Of course, not all bananas come from Costa Rica, and the downside of an informal system is that there are fewer checks and balances. There’s no proof that the bananas you eat come from happy workers, whether they be represented by Solidarismo, a traditional union, or no one at all.

For the die hard labor rights crowd who also love bananas, there is a small but growing Fair Trade banana movement. Here’s what Fair Trade International has to say.

Rainforest Alliance Certification also includes some worker protections, even though the certification is largely for environmental protections. Happily, 15% of bananas sold worldwide (and 100% of Dole’s bananas from Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala) carry the Rainforest Alliance Certification.

What do you think, readers? Does Solidarismo hold water, or is it a sham union?

Jen is editor in chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and lives in Oakland with her husband and baby. 
Hit her up at on twitter @jenboynton to discuss diapering strategies or sustainability reporting methodology.