U.S. Protests Tell GM to Resolve Colombian Hunger Strike

Student, community, and labor groups demonstrated outside GM corporate headquarters in Detroit and around the U.S. in support of Colombian hunger strikers who have sewed their lips closed in protest. Photo: Jim West.

After more than a year at the doorstep of the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, the http://labornotes.org/blogs/2012/08/lips-sewed-shut-colombia-gm-workers-... >struggle of Colombian GM workers came to the company’s own doorstep Wednesday. Student, community, and labor groups demonstrated outside corporate headquarters in Detroit, as other activists protested around the country.

Over the last two weeks seven disabled former General Motors workers in Bogotá have sewed their lips closed to begin a hunger strike that they say will continue until GM responds to their demand for assistance, or until they die.

They escalated their protest after a year of peaceful vigil outside the embassy, saying they were victimized by a corporation not only headquartered in the U.S. but still owned to a significant degree by the government.

The workers are protesting a set-up that left them not only disabled but unemployed, coerced or deceived into “voluntarily” giving up their rights under Colombian law, and left without compensation, retraining, or medical benefits. By controlling workers’ medical treatment and records, GM knew who got hurt and how to alter the record to make it appear their injuries didn’t occur inside the plant.

The disabled workers organized to defend their rights, and in retaliation, GM Colombia fired the association’s president, Jorge Parra.

U.S. activists brought their protest Wednesday to the 10,000 square foot mansion of GM’s CEO in McLean, Virginia, as more than 200 people around North America undertook solidarity fasts.

In several states, activists delivered letters to GM dealers asking them to share with headquarters their concerns over the black-eye the brand is receiving.

About 30 demonstrators from a variety of Detroit-area unions and community groups converged outside GM headquarters, displaying large photos of the hunger strikers’ sewed lips.

“People were sympathetic, and moved—and just shocked,” said Diana Sierra, an officer of the University of Michigan Graduate Employees Organization who helped organized the protest.

Rallies spread the message in several states, starting last Saturday in Arlington, Texas, where a vigil and fast took place outside the GM assembly plant. A flash-mob in Portland, Oregon, gathered at noon yesterday in the “city’s living room,” Pioneer Courthouse Square, singing and chanting for justice.

The actions followed a failed mediation in Colombia last week. The GM representative walked out on talks with a commission established under agreement with the International Labor Organization. No further meetings are scheduled—unless GM receives more pressure.

Meanwhile a delegation of labor experts sent to Colombia in July by Witness for Peace, a faith-based peace and justice group, concluded its report. The group met with unions and community groups and discovered harsh realities still exist for Colombian workers on the ground now that last year’s free trade agreement with the U.S. has been implemented.

Despite promises of investment and training for state officials to combat the notorious violence and union-busting aimed at Colombia’s labor movement, the delegation concluded that “the systemic failure to prosecute labor violations indicates that the Labor Action Plan has not been implemented in full.”

The report also revealed that employers are pursuing new forms of subcontracting and short-term contracts to ensure a high turnover of workers and maintain low wages, poor working conditions, meager benefits, and the inability to accumulate seniority. The report singled out GM for preventing independent unionization in its plant, fomenting conflict that has led to the illegal firings the hunger strikers are protesting.

Sierra said North American activists are planning actions at Colombian consulates in Chicago and New York, as well as more visits to dealerships. She said several unions, including the UAW, have asked GM headquarters to intervene.

The hunger strikers are taking notice: Sierra received word from Parra today, saying he is weakening but feels inspired and moved by the solidarity.

The company is paying attention, too. GM’s Colombian unit issued a statement claiming all of the fired workers’ cases have adhered to proper procedures. The hunger strikers and their supporters pointed out that the cases rely on false documents, and said that the company’s foot-dragging demonstrates its “systematic negligence of the workers’ health and well-being.”

Comments

frankhammer | 08/16/12

The following letter signed by UAW members and retirees was sent to UAW President Bob King, requesting the UAW's full support of the Colombian hunger strikers:

An Open Letter to President Bob King

We, the undersigned UAW members and retirees, are writing to urge you to lend the immediate and full support of our union on behalf of fired GM autoworkers currently engaged in a hunger strike at the site of the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Colombia.

The hunger strike was initiated on August 1, 2012 on the heels of a year-long peaceful encampment at the curb of the embassy by former GM workers from the Colmotores assembly plant and their families. They have formed The Association of Sick and Fired Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL)to protest their termination by GM management due to job related injuries and illnesses. They are demanding an end to the working conditions that led to their injuries, compensation for their losses, and reinstatement to gainful employment at the corporation. While GM has responded by improving some working conditions, the company has not responded to the demands for justice by the fired workers. In the meantime, those on the hunger strike have sewn their mouths shut.

We believe it is essential to open ours. Your intervention on behalf of the Colombian workers with Peter McKinley, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia and GM CEO Daniel Akerson can help resolve the issues in contention, and bring to an end the hunger strike. Timely action now can save lives. If necessary, we urge you to lead a union delegation to the site of the hunger strike to widely publicize the heroic actions by the Colombian autoworkers, to further the cause of justice and international solidarity. An injury to one is an injury to all!

Signed,

Alta Magyar 9
Dianne Mathiowetz 10
George Windau 12
Wendy Thompson 22
Dianne Feeley 22
Jim Theisen 212
Doug Hanscom 239
Sharma Denner 239
Rosendo Delgado 412
Scott Houldieson 551
Terri Houldieson 551
Judy Wraight 600
Ron Lare 600
Martha Grevatt 869
Alex Wassell 869
Lakeesha Sanders 869
Bob Glassman 869
Joseph Losier 869
Frank Hammer 909
Miriam Pickens 909
Dick Danjin 909
Al Benchich 909
Jeanne Rascoe 1111
Peggy Ciccinelli 1112
Nick Waun 1112
Teri Norris 1250
Brett Ward 1700
Pete Bennett 2093
Jeff Brown 3000
Dan Theisen 5960
Herman Rosenfeld 303 (CAW)
Lindsay Hinshelwood 707 (CAW)

12 Aug 2012