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Inspiring displays of international solidarity at workers’ conference in Tijuana

Published Dec 14, 2008 5:24 PM

The fifth Cuba/Venezuela/Mexico/North America Labor Conference, with representation from eight countries and virtually every region of the U.S., took place the weekend of Dec. 5-7 in Tijuana, Mexico. Sponsors of the conference included the U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange; Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas; World Organization for the Right of the People to Healthcare—Service Employees International Union 1199 NY; International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five; National Network on Cuba; Venezuela Solidarity Network; International Action Center; Cuba Solidarity New York; Southwest Workers Union; and Converjencia de los Movimientos de los Pueblos de las Americas; among others.

Left to right: Mike Martinez, FIST;
Ernesto Freire, CTC Foreign Relations
Head Officer; Cheryl LaBash, U.S./Cuba
Labor Exchange; Alicia Jrapko, Int'l
Committee for the Freedom of the
Cuban Five; Magali Llort, mother of
Fernando Gonzalez one of the Cuban Five.
WW photo: Bob McCubbin

The issue brought up by speaker after speaker throughout the three-day conference, and the theme of the Dec. 5 evening social, was freedom for the Cuban Five and humane visitation rights—especially for Olga Salanueva and Adriana Perez, who are denied all access to their loved ones. These five heroic Cuban revolutionaries, arrested, tried and imprisoned in the U.S. for their efforts to expose the criminal plans of counterrevolutionary terrorists based in Miami, must be set free!

It is the height of hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. government that these men, who at great personal risk dedicated themselves to exposing terrorist activities, have been held captive in U.S. federal prisons for more than 10 years. Magali Llort Ruiz, the mother of Fernando González, one of the Five, spoke on several occasions during the conference and was honored with several gifts during a presentation by Clarence Thomas, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 Executive Board member.

The Dec. 5 evening program, in a hall hung with banners honoring the Five and U.S. political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, included presentations by Cheryl LaBash, one of the main conference organizers, who called on U.S.-based unions to follow the example of British trade unionists who educate and engage workers on the case of the Five; Alicia Jrapko, leader of the International Committee for Freedom for the Cuban Five, who condemned the U.S. government for the heartless punishment inflicted on family members of the Five by preventing family visits; Andrés Morejón of ICAP, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, who spoke of the tremendous solidarity that Cuba and the Five have received from organizations and committees all over the world; and Silvia Garcia, representing the Cuban National Assembly of Peoples Power, who provided details of the legal struggle to free the Five. Solidarity messages were also read.

The Dec. 6-7 sessions were chaired by conference organizers Cheryl LaBash and Ignacio Meneses, and by SEIU Local 1199 leader Radames Rivera.

Ernesto Freire Cazanas, head officer of the Foreign Relations Department of the CTC (Cuban Workers Confederation), led off the Dec. 6 morning session with dramatic figures highlighting the achievements of the Cuban Revolution, both domestically and with regard to international relations. He praised the conference for providing the opportunity for communication among the various countries present.

Larry Holmes of the May 1st Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights spoke for Teresa Gutierrez, who was unable to travel due to illness following a trip abroad. He observed that the election of Barack Obama reflects enormous changes in the U.S. working class. The huge outpouring of immigrant workers in May 2006 was the first indication that Obama could win. Holmes noted that the primary reason for the increasing repression of immigrant workers is their ability to influence non-immigrant workers. Holmes emphasized the necessity for Black and white workers to stand with their immigrant sisters and brothers this coming May Day.

Ramón Carmona, representing the World Federation of Trade Unions, reported on the May 2008 trade union conference in Quito, Ecuador and urged everyone’s attendance at the next conference, which will be held in Brazil. Carmona concluded his presentation with the observation that the terrible repression of trade unionists in Colombia is an indication of how frightened the capitalist rulers are of the workers.

Edgar Paez, from the National Board of Sinaltrainal, the Colombian union of food industry workers, gave a detailed description of the murderous repression being suffered by workers and trade union activists in Colombia. But in the face of this state terrorism and a crushing economic collapse presently affecting millions of Colombians, the working class is fighting back. Paez noted that among the struggles presently underway in Colombia are a work stoppage by truckers and cane cutters and a strike by court workers.

Representing the Confederation of Haitian Workers was General Secretary Paul LouLou Chery, who remarked that Haiti is “the mother of freedom in our region.” Haiti achieved its independence from France by defeating the racist colonial power militarily in 1804. But he also commented that Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere, with 5 million workers but only 200,000 formally employed. The food situation is grave following the devastation of recent hurricanes. Solidarity in the form of material aid is urgently needed.

Concluding the session, Ignacio Meneses thanked SEIU Locals 721 and 1199, and UNITE HERE Western Region, Local 2. It was their enthusiastic assistance that ensured a successful conference.

Elmer LaBog, chairperson of Kilusang Mayo Uno, a revolutionary organization of the Filipino working class, spoke of the impact of so-called globalization in the Philippines: repressive laws, no job security, many violations of International Labor Organization standards, militarization, assassinations and massacres. The Filipino workers’ strategies of resistance include demonstrations, strikes and cultural activities that educate and organize the workers.

Mario López Choque, general secretary of the Confederation of Bolivian Workers, provided a detailed description of the struggle of the Bolivian workers and peasants, beginning in the year 1982, to free themselves from the tentacles of imperialism. The struggle continues and he concluded with the demands, “All bosses out of Bolivia! U.S. ambassador and USAID out of Bolivia!”

Edgar Sarango, the vice-president of the Confederation of Workers of Ecuador, spoke of a 10-year-long crisis in Ecuador: terrible social instability, divisions among the workers, political opportunism, devastating inflation and the consequent emigration of 2.5 million citizens. The program of the present government, led by Rafael Correa, includes a struggle against corruption, the defense of national sovereignty, institutionalizing the democratic process, expanding social services and protecting natural resources. Sarango emphasized that the class struggle will continue as long as classes of rich and poor exist. He concluded, “Nothing will stop us!”

UNITE HERE Western States Joint Board director and international vice president Cristina Vasquez addressed the growing economic catastrophe for workers in the U.S. She noted that one in 10 families is behind in their mortgage payments or facing foreclosure. She commented that the unions helped Barack Obama get elected. Now “we have our list of demands. Immigration reform was first on the list when we met with the transition team in [Washington,] D.C.” Second on the list is health care for everyone. Third is an employee free choice act—the so-called card check. Finally, she emphasized, “No more ‘free trade’ agreements!”

Rosie Martinez, chairperson of the Latino Caucus of SEIU Local 721, focused on the exploitation of women workers, calling special attention to the plight of maquiladora workers. She introduced Hermandad Mexicana leader Gloria Saucedo, who has set up the “Casa de Elvira Arellano,” a shelter in Tijuana for undocumented workers victimized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and pushed back into Mexico with no resources. Saucedo received a standing ovation from conference attendees.

Clarence Thomas, executive board member of Local 10 of the ILWU, recounted the proud history of his local, noting that Local 10 organizer Harry Bridges was himself an immigrant worker who understood the connection between race and class. Thomas suggested that although the workers find it difficult to compete with lobbyists and corporate lawyers who defend the rich, we have the ability to take action at the point of production and must use that weapon.

The Dec. 6 dinner included a program focusing on U.S. political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, on death row for 27 years and, following a Supreme Court ruling, once again facing the possibility of execution. Hosted by Sabrina Green of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, it included a live hookup with activist and Move member Ramona Africa, and a recorded message to the conference from Mumia himself.

The Dec. 7 meeting focused on the struggles of immigrant workers and conference resolutions. Benjamín Prado, central committee member of Union del Barrio, exposed the border wall as an illegitimate border, forming part of a U.S. military strategy that criminalizes workers and condemns many to their death for simply seeking work.

Fernando Castillo of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union described the struggle of the Cananea miners, whose militant strike sparked the Mexican revolution of 1910. Their current struggle is challenging the sellout Mexican government and its neoliberal policies, protesting the proposed selling off of the national oil company and ongoing state repression, including the recent arrest of Cananea miner leader Pavón Campos.

Juan Jose Gutierrez, leader of the Movimiento Latino USA, provided an overview of where immigration reform stands with the election of Barack Obama. He spoke of the historic marches of 2006, the repression that followed and the duty labor unions have to support immigrant workers’ rights.

The conference completed with a global resolution that continued the unifying process begun in Ecuador last May with the Quito Declaration. There was also a resolution supporting the Republic Window and Door workers’ sit-in, an endorsement of a May 2009 Workers’ Solidarity Month, support for framed-up ILWU workers and for Mexican miners. The sixth labor conference in Tijuana is planned for Dec. 2009 to continue uniting workers of all the Americas.

This report has focused on the presentations of scheduled speakers, but there was also very active participation on the part of the audience. Of special note was the remarkable translation service provided throughout all three conference meetings on Dec. 6 by Miami-based FIST organizer Mike Martinez. The reporter would also like to thank Ben Prado of Unión del Barrio for the additional information provided for the preparation of this report.