Turning Michigan into Colombia: The Global Assault on Workers and the Prospects for Solidarity
December 11 marked a major defeat for working people in the United States, as a lame-duck legislature made Michigan the twenty-fourth state to pass so-called “right-to-work” legislation. The Orwellian term “right to work” was popularized by employers starting in the 1940s as they sought to roll back the historic gains of labor during the prior decade. Right-to-work (RTW) laws prohibit contracts that require all workers to contribute to the costs of union representation, encouraging “free-riding” and making it much more difficult for unions to survive (unions remain legally bound to represent all workers within a bargaining unit, whether or not they pay their fair share of dues). Michigan’s RTW legislation sends an ominous signal for workers everywhere given the state’s historic reputation as a union stronghold and the fact that a mass protest of at least 10,000 workers at the state capitol in Lansing on December 11 did not succeed in preventing passage.
One of those 10,000 workers was visiting from Colombia, which has long been a poster child for the sort of neoliberal sweatshop economy desired by corporations and international financial institutions. Jorge Parra came to Detroit in September to confront his former employer, General Motors, for firing him and over 200 other autoworkers from its plant in Bogotá after they suffered workplace injuries and illnesses. Parra had sewn his mouth shut and begun a hunger strike on November 20 to publicize the workers’ demand for direct negotiations with GM. Reacting to the news about Michigan’s RTW legislation, Parra says that “I see a clear connection between what’s happening here and what has happened in Colombia.” He notes that the RTW laws in this country “are the same ones that have weakened union activity” in Colombia.
Parra’s comment highlights the transnational nature of the attack on working people and points to the imperative of cross-border solidarity. Parra understands on a profound level what most unions in this country have only started to learn: that “it’s all one fight.” In an era of declining labor rights, precarious employment, and inequality—and soaring corporate profits—international solidarity is more crucial than ever.
Starving for Justice: The Colombian GM Workers
Jorge Parra’s hunger strike hit the five-week mark on Christmas Day, December 25. After five weeks of not eating, the human body begins to risk permanent tissue and brain damage; a week or two after that, organ failure, blindness, and death become more likely with each passing day.
Parra was driven to this desperate measure by General Motors’ refusal to negotiate with the workers unjustly fired from its Colmotores factory in Bogotá. After Colombia’s institutional mechanisms for redress failed—no surprise given the Colombian government’s corruption and subordination to corporate interest—Parra and his fellow workers formed the Association of Injured and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL) and in August 2011 began a tent occupation outside the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, choosing that site because of the U.S. government’s part ownership in GM following the U.S. auto bailout of 2008-09 and the close ties between Colombia and the United States. On December 25 the tent occupation entered its 512th day, with many of the workers there also engaging in hunger strikes in recent months. They are demanding that GM provide compensation for the wrongful firings, comprehensive medical care, and new job placements for those who are still able to work.
Above: Hunger striker Jorge Parra with his lips sewn shut, November 20. Photo from www.asotrecol.com.
Below: Several of the ex-GM workers on the 488th day of their tent occupation outside the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, on December 1, 2012. The t-shirt of Manuel Ospina (far left) reads “Meet the new Chevy Plan: You get sick on the assembly line and they throw you out on the street.” Photo from www.asotrecol.com.
The workers’ families have suffered even more than the workers themselves. Some have already been evicted from their homes, by some of the same banks and mortgage companies throwing U.S. families out on the street. Many of the workers have small children. Earlier this month five of the workers’ wives wrote personal letters to GM Vice President of Labor Relations Catherine Clegg, which supporters hand-delivered to Clegg’s mansion in the Detroit suburbs on December 6. The wife of one injured worker told of how her 8-year-old daughter constantly asks why her father “is not happy like he was before, why he has his mouth sewn shut, why she has seen him so sick, and other questions that I do not know how to respond to.” The couple’s other child is a 12-year-old boy named Angel, who has cerebral palsy and is about 98-percent incapacitated. Since his father’s firing Angel no longer receives the medicine and therapy he needs. Such scenes are repeated for many of the workers’ families, who live in a world that GM executives will never see or experience. In 2011 GM recorded a record profit of $7.6 billion, thanks in part to its subsidy from taxpayers.
The struggle of ASOTRECOL is just one piece of a larger and ongoing tragedy in Colombia. The country has long been the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists, with 29 killed and hundreds receiving death threats in 2011. Peasants, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous people are routinely murdered and displaced by business elites who covet their land and resources. Sexual violence is frequently used as part of this effort. Dozens of priests and human rights defenders are killed each year. And underlying these acts of overt criminality is the structural violence of daily life for the country’s majority: 1.15 percent of landowners control 52 percent of the land, three-quarters of rural residents live in poverty, and about 121,000 Colombians die each year from undernourishment.
But the Colombian government does very well in one respect. In 2010 the World Bank and International Finance Corporation applauded Colombia’s strides toward maintaining a “business friendly environment.” The report ranked Colombia third in Latin America with regard to the “ease of doing business.” Not coincidentally, Colombia has been the United States’ most reliable ally in South America over the past two decades, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in annual military aid that is used in large part to kill and control Colombia’s hungry majority.
During these same two decades the Colombian government has adhered to the familiar recipe of neoliberal economic policies: reducing spending on social programs, privatizing public resources, lowering corporate tax rates, and deregulating business activity and financial transfers. Colombia’s recent “free-trade” agreements with the United States and the European Union are additional steps in this direction, designed to further liberate big business at the expense of ordinary people in all countries involved. Despite promises to respect workers’ rights—embodied in the “Labor Action Plan” that accompanied the 2011 U.S.-Colombia agreement—the idea of protecting working people runs directly counter to the logic of such trade deals.
Anti-union legislation has played an important role in this neoliberal agenda. The American Center for International Labor Solidarity notes that prior to 1990, “Colombian workers were among the most organized in Latin America.” But since the government passed anti-union legislation similar to RTW in 1990, “Anti-union discrimination by employers” has increased and “employer practices such as the dismissal and blacklisting of union leaders are widespread.” In 2005 the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions gave an overview of labor conditions in Colombia:
The state ministries and bodies responsible for social policy have been weakened, reformed or dismantled…Workers have been sacked or given less secure terms of employment in both the private and public sectors. Both sectors are being restructured using laws that promote labour flexibility and enable employers to evade clear obligations…It is a complex and sometimes impossible task to form trade unions, sign collective agreements or organise strikes...People wanting to set up a union are dismissed, harassed or even threatened with death...Impunity is the norm for those who violate labour rights (including murdering of unions leaders and members), whilst the full force of the law is brought to bear on workers, even where they are acting in full compliance with it.
The report noted that as a result, just five percent of the economically active population belonged to trade unions, and only one percent of Colombian workers were covered by a collective bargaining agreement—even worse than in the United States. But not much worse.
Moving Michigan Closer to Colombia
Twenty-three other U.S. states preceded Michigan in passing right-to-work laws, but most were in the low-wage economies of the South where unions were traditionally rare. Michigan, on the other hand, has the fifth-highest union density in the country. For this reason it was a particular target of right-wing billionaire donors like the Koch brothers, who poured millions of dollars into the state to promote RTW. These forces viewed Michigan as a litmus test for their effort to smash unions, wages, and corporate taxes in other northern states. Their dream is quite clear: an economy and society resembling Colombia’s, where atomized workers are paid starvation wages and work in dangerous conditions while the chosen few gorge themselves on the profits.
The rich have good reason to look favorably on RTW. According to a comprehensive 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute, annual wages in RTW states are around $1,500 less than in non-RTW states, and the portion of employers who sponsor employee pension programs is 4.8 percent lower. Right-wing demagogues claim that RTW laws “create jobs,” but in fact they are just as likely to do the opposite, by lowering wages and thereby reducing consumer demand. Many workers simply enter the ranks of the permanently-unemployed and expendable population, while whatever jobs are created are typically of the low-wage, highly-precarious sort.
Michigan’s RTW laws are the culmination of a host of anti-union measures imposed in the state in the past two years. The most notorious is the “emergency manager” law that allows the governor to hand over cities and school districts to unelected dictators, who are empowered to dissolve union contracts, lay off workers en masse, and privatize public land and services. After Michigan voters rejected the law in a November referendum, the lame-duck legislature passed a slightly-modified version of the law around the same time it was pushing through RTW. In recent months Michigan’s politicians have also prohibited dues check-off for teachers, eliminated benefits for the domestic partners of state employees, and decreed that research assistants at universities are not workers and therefore cannot unionize. Governor Rick Snyder and his fellow Republicans have led the onslaught, though sometimes with the cooperation or only tepid opposition of state Democrats.
In Detroit Jorge Parra views these developments with a sad but knowing expression on his face. “The same story is being repeated here,” he says with regard to RTW. “They put this same law into effect in the early 1990s in Colombia, and now it’s practically a death sentence to be a unionist.” Michigan workers do not face the same level of violence and hardship that Colombian workers face, but RTW and other attacks have inched Michigan ever closer to that reality.
Cross-Border Solidarity: Prospects and Obstacles
In this context, cross-border solidarity has become more urgent than ever. Solidarity has a pragmatic as well as moral logic, according to Ron Lare, a retired Detroit autoworker. Lare has been active in both the GM-Colombia solidarity campaign and the fight against RTW in Michigan. He comments that “if conditions in Colombia and other nations do not rise toward the best of U.S. union conditions via international solidarity, U.S. pay and conditions will continue to sink toward those in Colombia and other oppressed nations.” Lare notes that while GM fires injured workers in Colombia, “something approaching this situation is already the case” in many U.S. workplaces that employ temporary and non-union workers. In Michigan auto plants, for instance, “GM-Colombia conditions are already foreshadowed” in the use of temporary workers and the two-tier wage system, sending an ominous signal for the future. For Lare, “the new ‘right to work’ (for less) laws in Michigan show why workers here should care about what is happening to General Motors-Colombia workers.”
Other Michigan autoworkers echo these sentiments. Melvin Thompson was so moved upon meeting Jorge Parra that he staged a 23-day hunger strike of his own to help call attention to General Motors’ crimes. Thompson has witnessed the impact of wage cuts, speed-ups, and dangerous factories on his fellow workers, and says that in GM’s Colombia operation “you can see the parallels to how we do business here. Everything that they endure, we endure to a much lesser extent.” He felt compelled to take such dramatic action “because our struggles are tied together.” Chrysler worker Martha Grevatt says that the “unsafe practices” at her own plant and her experience dealing with company abuses for the past 25 years “tells me that the companies don’t care about workers.” That experience makes it “impossible” for her “not to be interested in and sympathetic with the workers in Colombia.” Given the global nature of the capitalist assault on workers, “the only way we can win is by uniting in common cause and refusing to be divided by borders or language.”
Above: GM hunger striker Jorge Parra (center), with fellow hunger striker Melvin Thompson of Detroit (right) and actor Danny Glover, earlier this month. (Photo by author)
The solidarity campaign waged by these workers and others around the United States is an encouraging sign. Thompson’s hunger strike and the other components of that campaign represent U.S. labor at its best: self-sacrificing, compassionate, angry, and conscious of how global capitalism functions. But any effort to recruit large numbers of U.S. workers into this sort of campaign will have to confront a host of obstacles. Many of these obstacles are reflections of U.S. corporate capitalism and the racism and nationalism within U.S. society, and thus beyond the direct control of labor, while some derive from the structure and ideology of U.S. unions themselves.
Perhaps the greatest barriers to cross-border solidarity are ideological. In this country we are taught from a young age that the lives of U.S. citizens (especially the white middle-class ones) are inherently more valuable than the lives of foreigners. This implicit assumption pervades our school textbooks, newspapers, and television shows, and has a profound impact on us all. And the borders are not just national: the U.S. workforce itself has always been divided along lines of race, gender, sexuality, age, skill, wage levels, immigration and unionization status, and other categories. In this context the old IWW slogan that “an injury to one is an injury to all” is a truly revolutionary statement. “The biggest barrier to solidarity is the ability of the bosses to pit workers here against workers in other countries in competition for fewer and fewer jobs,” says Martha Grevatt. “We have to see that we have more in common with workers in other countries than with the capitalists of our own countries.”
The structural position of U.S. workers also presents certain obstacles to solidarity. As consumers, workers in the United States derive some material benefit from the exploitation of labor and resources in underdeveloped countries (though far less than capitalists do). In the case of the U.S. auto industry, employee stock ownership and profit-sharing arrangements give workers a concrete stake in the prosperity of the companies and, at least potentially, a disincentive to support the demands of other workers like ASOTRECOL in Colombia. The UAW leadership has certainly bought into this idea of shared interest between executives and workers. “Management’s not the enemy,” says one union official in Ohio. “The enemy is the competition.”
As such comments suggest, unions themselves often present institutional obstacles to solidarity. Most U.S. union leaders have done little to foster cross-border ties among workers. Even when denouncing neoliberalism, their posters and campaign literature tend to be filled with nationalistic assertions about “American” jobs. They speak not of the working class but of the “middle class,” a term that reinforces the sense that there is some other class of lazy, undeserving, often-dark-skinned parasites hovering below. This perception leads most union leaders to dismiss foreign workers as well as U.S. service workers, immigrants, domestic laborers, and the unemployed (and also provides much of the basis for right-wing populism in this country). Union leaders even sell out their own constituents by agreeing to “two-tier” wage schemes and other concessions. Their approach tends to rely much more on backroom discussions with bosses and on the concept of “partnership” with employers than on the mobilization of rank-and-file workers to confront the employers. Their political strategy consists of playing lapdogs to the Democrats.
Most Michigan unions exemplify these problems. When several solidarity activists visited a recent meeting of union executives in one Michigan town to request a donation for the families of the Colombian GM workers, most of the union leaders on the council questioned the very idea of aiding anyone but “our workers.” In thinly-veiled racist language, the council’s president worried that if they donated anything they would be “inundated” with hordes of outsiders soliciting assistance in the future. The phrase “working class” was never uttered.
Other examples abound. Many progressive critics point out that union leaders’ constant concessions and failed political strategy helped pave the way for the recent passage of RTW. Ron Lare notes that when they first heard rumors about RTW in late November, those leaders’ first instinct was to “talk to the boss” rather than mobilizing their bases for strikes and civil disobedience; even after RTW’s passage in Michigan, many national labor leaders remain committed to the same failed strategy. The injured GM workers in Colombia have yet to receive any public support from the leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) despite countless appeals by Jorge Parra and his fellow workers. Michigan unions’ disinterest in the recent campaign to repeal the “emergency manager” law—which would primarily affect black population centers like Detroit—is yet another telling indication of these same sorts of prejudices. Most labor leaders remain wedded to the traditional model: trying to elect Democrats, “talking to the boss” rather than engaging the rank-and-file, and remaining narrowly focused on the concerns of one’s “own” workers.
Yet if the year 2012 offers one definitive lesson for U.S. labor, it is that a militant, aggressive unionism that emphasizes rank-and-file mobilization and community alliances is the most promising strategy for defending working people. The most compelling evidence comes from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike in September, which confronted a Democratic mayor and successfully prevented his plans to cut wages and destroy job security and the union. Though public school teachers are commonly vilified by politicians of both parties, the CTU had the strong support of Chicagoans—thanks in part to union outreach to city residents and a “social unionist” perspective emphasizing the need to fight not just for dues-paying members but also for students and the community at large (for instance, by opposing school closures and demanding smaller classes). Soon after, non-unionized manual laborers in Wal-Mart’s supply chain went on strike in Illinois and California and successfully won back pay and improvements in working conditions.
Rekindling this spirit of militant unionism is crucial if U.S. workers are to achieve a decent future for themselves and their posterity. Labor must not only become more aggressive and more member-driven, but, as Martha Grevatt says, must also “build solidarity with the global community of workers who are under attack.” Time is short for a person on hunger strike, necessitating immediate action in solidarity with the GM-Colombia workers. But in this great global race-to-the-bottom, “our time is short as well,” says Ron Lare. “Time is short for us all.”
WAYS TO SUPPORT THE GM WORKERS IN COLOMBIA:
DONATE to the workers’ families by writing a check to Wellspring UCC with “Colombia relief” on memo line, and send to Wellspring UCC, Box 508, Centreville, VA 20122. Or donate at www.wellspringucc.org and write “Colombia relief” on the message subject line.
CALL/EMAIL and TELL THESE PEOPLE TO PUSH GM TO NEGOTIATE (Dial 888-720-3180 to be directed to any of them):
- US Embassy in Colombia: email@example.com (Andrea Aquilla, Labor Officer)
- Colombian Embassy in DC: firstname.lastname@example.org (Veronica Turk, assistant to the Ambassador)
- US Bureau of Int’l Labor Affairs (Jason Kuruvilla): email@example.com
POST ON TWITTER: @GM @USEmbassyBogota @BarackObama @JuanManSantos
POST ON FACEBOOK: GM: www.facebook.com/generalmotors
US Embassy: www.facebook.com/usdos.colombia