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Autoworkers’ meeting builds solidarity with workers in Latin America

Published Jun 9, 2011 9:56 PM

An important meeting took place on June 4 at Solidarity House, the headquarters of the United Auto Workers. For the first time here, about 60 UAW staff, officers and rank-and-file members learned about and discussed the dire situation facing workers in Honduras and Colombia.

Gail Presbey, director of the Carney Latin American Solidarity Archive and a professor at University of Detroit Mercy, reported on her recent trip to Honduras in a delegation sponsored by School of the Americas Watch. She opened her presentation with two photos: one of overthrown President Manuel Zelaya; the other of President Porfirio Lobo Sosa shaking hands with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Presbey explained that Washington opposed Zelaya because he had tripled the minimum wage and was favoring peasants against rich landowners, while Lobo is rejected by most Hondurans. With Zelaya out, the Pentagon wants to increase the number of U.S. military bases in Honduras from one to three.

Under Zelaya, Honduras had also decided to stop sending members of its military to the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Ga., for training. In Honduras, Colombia and much of Latin America, the paramilitaries, police and military who terrorize workers have received “counter-insurgency” training at the SOA. For 20 years SOA Watch has been protesting every year outside the school’s gates, demanding this terrorist training school be shut down.

The focus of Presbey’s talk was on the heroic resistance of Honduran teachers, who have been holding mass protests against the privatization of public education. Teachers have been shot to death. One teacher died after she was hit by a tear gas canister and, while on the ground choking from the gas, was deliberately run over by a car.

A current strike in Honduras against privatization has 98 percent participation, and some teachers are on hunger strike. The government has suspended 300 teachers and threatened another 5,000 with suspension. When college students demonstrated in solidarity with the teachers, they were gassed and forced to retreat to the presumed sanctuary of the campus; there the police beat them.

An audience member pointed out that the company hired to develop the privatization plan in Honduras is working to dismantle public schools in Detroit — after having achieved the same goal in post-Hurricane-Katrina New Orleans.

The meeting also featured Gerardo Cajamarca, who is the U.S. representative of Sinaltrainal, the food and beverage union of Colombia. Cajamarca fled the death squad terror in his country in 2004 and, with the assistance of the Steelworkers union, gained political asylum in the U.S.

Colombian unionist speaks

Cajamarca described the horrible suffering of the Colombian working class. In a country of 44 million people, 2.5 million children are working, many for U.S. transnational corporations. Five million people have been displaced from their land. Corporations such as Coca-Cola, Chiquita and Occidental Petroleum employ right-wing paramilitaries to terrorize workers who are trying to unionize. Chiquita publicly admitted giving $2 million to the paramilitaries, along with 5,000 bullets. More than 3,000 union activists have been assassinated over the past 25 years, with 51 killings in the past year alone.

Cajamarca charged the Colombian government, which has allowed the death squads to function with impunity, with “genocide” and “systematic terrorism” against the unions as well as the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities that have been forced off their traditional lands.

Cajamarca spoke at length on the need to defeat the proposed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. When the agreement was negotiated between U.S. President George Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian Congress ratified the treaty. According to Cajamarca, 44 percent of those congresspeople had ties to the paramilitaries. “We have death squads making laws that Obama says we have to sign,” Cajamarca stated. “A Nobel Peace Prize winner wants to ratify agreements signed by terrorists.”

The meeting’s sponsor, UAW Friends of SOA Watch, brought Cajamarca to Detroit for several reasons. One was to build a Coca-Cola boycott, which is officially supported by the UAW. Eight Coca-Cola workers in Colombia have been assassinated in an attempt to intimidate Sinaltrainal supporters. Coca-Cola workers in other countries have met a similar fate.

During the discussion, a rank-and-file Ford worker described how, after Cajamarca addressed her union meeting earlier that day, the members voted overwhelmingly to ban Coca-Cola products at their hall and work to make the plant Coca-Cola-free.

The UAW Friends of SOA Watch also hopes to broaden labor support for the struggle to “stop killing our sisters and brothers” and to send a busload of Detroit labor activists to the annual protest at SOA gates next November.

UAW Civil and Human Rights Director Miguel Foster, Steelworkers Sub-Regional Director Al Cholger, and retired UAW International Representative Frank Hammer addressed the meeting as well.