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Latin American labor tour culminates in Wisconsin

Published Apr 6, 2011 4:20 PM

From left, Pipino Cuevas Velasquez and
Gilda Chacon Bravo in San Diego.
WW photo: Bob McCubbin

An 11-city national visit of Latin American union leaders culminated on April 1 in Wisconsin, the touchstone of the fight against union busting in the U.S. Within one day the delegation met with immigrant rights community organizers at Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee and young militants in Madison who had spurred a recent three-week Capitol occupation, and spoke at a public meeting at Madison’s Labor Temple.

The U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange, Union del Barrio and the International Action Center initiated the tour, which was also supported by the World Federation of Trade Unions - Americas Region.

Gilda Chacon Bravo from Cuba represented the WFTU throughout and was joined by Humberto Montes de Oca Luna and Pipino Cuevas Velasquez from the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME). The U.S. denied a visa to Mexican teachers’ union leader Jorge Cazares, effectively blocking communication with the active student and teacher movement in many U.S. cities.

In city after city, the SME leaders told the story of their 44,000 members, who together with their families were deprived of their livelihood in a night, forced from their jobs by the police and marines on Oct. 9, 2009. This attack was part of the neoliberal agenda of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who wants unions and any restrictions on capitalist profiteering eliminated and all regulations “liberalized.”

The tour’s theme, “Workers struggle beyond borders, uniting the people of nuestra América (our America),” came alive. According to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, an anti-union law was needed there to provide “flexibility.” Even President Barack Obama promotes helping business as the road to ending unemployment and underemployment. It is the same neoliberal program faced by workers in Mexico and the U.S.

A government slander campaign against SME — a union formed in 1914 — portrayed the union as overpaid and inefficient. The government claimed utility rates would go down and service would improve without the union. But when private contractors took over the work at the public Luz y Fuerza del Centro (Light and Power), inexperienced workers died in accidents, rates increased by 33 percent and power outages increased in Mexico City, a megalopolis with 20 million inhabitants.

SME turned this around by uniting with electricity users. Now of every 10 users, only three are paying their inflated electric bills. Working directly with the community, SME workers solve power outages.

Although many workers took a buyout, essentially selling their right to their jobs, more than 16,000 workers and their families remain in the struggle, which includes massive occupations of the central square, hunger strikes and a legal and electoral strategy. A current permanent “encampment” in the Zocalo square in Mexico City demands a solution to this conflict and the freedom of SME leader Miguel Márquez Ríos, who is a political prisoner.

Alternative to oppression

Latin American countries are constructing an alternative to neoliberalism and capitalist economic relations that exploit and oppress workers. Cuban leader Gilda Chacon Bravo, the first WFTU leader to tour the U.S., described how the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) has benefited not only the nine member states but has also helped development throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proposed ALBA, which Cuba and Venezuela initiated on Dec. 14, 2004. Since then cooperative trade between nations has helped meet the needs of the poorest and formerly disenfranchised people.

Operation Milagro restores eyesight to millions. The Cuban-developed “Yo sí puedo” literacy method teaches adults reading and writing in three months. The United Nations reports that illiteracy has been eliminated in Venezuela and Bolivia using this important tool.

Indigenous and Afro-descendant people are formally included in the ALBA decision-making process. The “sucre” virtual currency is used for international trade without the imperialist dollar and international capitalist banks.

Chacon Bravo invited everyone to participate in the fourth “Union meeting of Our America” planned in Managua, Nicaragua, for August. She characterized this event as a space open to all workers and social movements in the Americas — from Alaska to Patagonia — to discuss the common challenges facing the working class. Then Dec. 2 through 4 the discussion will continue in Tijuana, Mexico, at the Eighth U.S.-Cuba-Venezuela-Mexico Labor Conference.

The U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange, an initiator of this tour, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. More information and specific city reports are available at laborexchange.blogspot.com, or call 313-318-5159 or 313-355-8566.