GUATEMALA'S LABOR MOVEMENT Coke Victory Spurs Recovery

September 25, 2007

The Guatemalan labor movement is showing signs of recovery after the in- tense repression of the last half dozen years. Being a union officer is still a high-risk job. The kidnappings and murders continue unabated. Yet there is more activity than there was a year ago. "The level of organization comes in waves," says Frank La Rue, an exiled Guatemalan labor lawyer living in Washington. "After a while people accommodate to a certain level of repression. They get out of the ter- ror crisis and adapt to new ways of or- Jane Slaughter, staffwriter on Labor Notes, visited Guatemala in July. ganizing." Inside the Guatemala City Coca- Cola bottling plant, the atmosphere is quiet. No Coke bottles move down the conveyors, the red and white trucks that carry the worldwide sym- bol of U.S. soft-drink imperialism are parked. Nor do there seem to be tense preparations against a possible police take-over of the worker-oc- cupied factory. Members of the bot- tler workers' union, STEGAC, are waiting, waiting for a new owner to be found so that their union can re- sume its normal functioning under Guatemalan-style labor relations. When the workers at Embotellad- "The first three months of the occupation were tense." ora Guatemalteca S.A. took over their plant from the departing franchise owners on the night of February 17, they brought with them the bloody memory of 1978-80, when they lost eight members to the death squads. The international attention focused on their struggle for union rights in 1980 had forced the Atlanta-based Coca- Cola Co. to throw out the previous manager, an American named John Trotter, and install new ones. Now these new managers, Anthony Zash and Roberto Mendez, in a night-time meeting with the leaders of the STEGAC union, were claiming that the business was bankrupt and that they were about to shut down. The first three months of the occu- pation were tense. Plainclothes police patrolled outside, and the Army set up roadblocks, stopping passing cars and occasionally firing shots. The Minis- ter of the Interior called the union's position "practically one of rebel- lion." Overall, however, the govern- ment has attempted to act as mediator. The occupation came four months be- fore elections designed to prove to the world-in particular the U.S. Con- gress-that Guatemala is on the road to democracy. At first Coke officials refused to take any responsibility for the plant, travelling to Europe to explain to STEGAC's supporters that the plant was not viable. One hundred days later, on May 27, Coke pledged to find new franchise owners, and to rec- ognize the union and the current col- lective bargaining agreement. The company agreed to pay each worker a lump sum amounting to two and half months' pay as reimbursement for the work they had done in maintaining the plant, and set up a $12,000 trust fund for the survivors of those killed in 1978-80. Saving the Union, Not Just Jobs The agreement legitimized the union's occupation of the plant, and the Army's roadblocks are gone. Now the workers staff the plant on 24-hour shifts, except for the union officers, who are inside most of the time. The literacy classes, labor education and the twice-weekly union meetings con- tinue while the union waits for Coke SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1984 15The plant cafeteria. "Workers staff the plant on 24-hour shifts." to hold up its end of the bargain. While workers view the agreement as a victory, it is also a step backward in one important respect. In 1980, Coke agreed to oversee the manage- ment of the plant. That agreement was made between the parent company and the International Union of Food and Allied Workers Associations (IUF). It was the first agreement be- tween a transnational corporation and an international union secretariat. The May 27 agreement was signed only by STEGAC and Coke's Central Ameri- can subsidiary. This time Coke re- fused "in principle" to deal with the IUF, also refusing to take direct con- trol of the plant, as the unions suggested. Throughout the struggle STEGAC has made the union's survival its foremost goal. At one point the Minis- ter of Labor suggested that the union borrow money and set up the plant as a workers' cooperative. Rodolfo Ro- bles, STEGAC's secretary general, says that the union rejected this idea out of hand. "We don't believe work- ers should fight only for their own fac- tory," he explains. Forming a cooperative would have taken the Coke workers out of the union move- ment. Coke pressured the workers to take the money set aside as severance pay. Most refused to do so, although it meant going without any income for over four months. Accepting sever- ance pay (the pasivo laboral) would have meant taking the chance of not being rehired. STEGAC feared the company would hire new, non-union workers at lower wages. (Since the signing, the workers have been free to take the severance pay, since their employment with the new owners is assured.) One reason the workers boldly oc- cupied the plant was that they were unlikely to find jobs elsewhere if it folded. Any Coke worker, union offi- cial or not, would be blackballed by CACIF, the employers' organization. Although STEGAC appears to have wrung a major concession from Coca- Cola, the waiting game is not over. Some workers have grown impatient that Coke has not produced the fabled new owners. The union's numbers have shrunk from about 560 to 400. "Determined to Do Something" The most important step forward in the Guatemalan labor movement is the formation of a new union federation, CONUS. The leaders of past federa- tions have been virtually wiped out. Memories of June 21, 1980 are vivid: 27 leaders of the National Workers Central (CNT) were disappeared from union headquarters in one sweep. Two months later 17 more were cap- tured at a Catholic retreat. And yet new leaders have emerged to take their places. One CONUS leader describes the process: "After Fernando [Garcia, re- cording secretary of the glass workers union] was kidnapped, I was deter- mined to do something. I began trying to get people together, but they were afraid. At the first meeting called to form CONUS, there were only three people. The others wanted to give up, but I said no, we'll form an organizing committee and the next meeting will be bigger. At the next there were 18. Now CONUS has approximately 30 unions affiliated." One index of the severity of the repression the labor movement has suffered is that CONUS' predecessor, CNUS, had 150 member unions. The federation has no address, no phone. If a worker wants to find CONUS, he or she must make per- sonal contact with one of the leaders. The organization does not have its own press or mimeograph. As yet its affiliates are only in Guatemala City. "CONUS is not strong now, but it will be," says Coke's Rodolfo Ro- bles. CONUS helps organize new un- ions, and tries to give tactical and political advice to the less experi- enced. When the Tejidos Universales company began removing machinery from the factory-and two union lead- ers disappeared--CONUS gave coun- sel on how to deal with the Ministry of Labor and how to obtain severance pay. CONUS issues bulletins (denun- cias) about the continuing murders of trade unionists and about government and employer violations of union rights. Sometimes the bulletins are distributed at bus stops; more often, because of the danger, they are hand- ed out inside the factories. The May 1 bulletin explained that CONUS was not calling a May Day demonstration this year. The last time the Guatema- lan movement gathered on May Day, in 1980, 90 people were disappeared that same day, either picked out of the crowd or taken from their homes later that evening. The bodies of three workers were discovered wrapped in the banner they'd carried in the march. This year, the only May Day celebration was the Coke workers', 16 REPORT ON ThE AMERICAS I REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 16behind the walls of the occupied fac- tory. Normalcy And Terror It is almost possible to forget for a moment that the Guatemalan labor movement functions under the shad- ow of the death squads. Problems are similar to those of unions anywhere. The employers seek ways to get around the contract. Labor courts are unbearably slow, and stacked against workers. Leaders complain about low membership levels. And normal activ- ity continues: contracts are negotiat- ed. Union officials are full-time and paid by the employer. Some unions have dues check-off. In some respects the labor laws, first promulgated in 1947 under the democratic govern- ment of Juan Jos6 Ar6valo, are more progressive than those in this country. "The employer is honoring the contract 100% now," says a member of the executive committee of STI- CAVSA, the 400-member glass work- ers' union. But on February 18, dur- ing the bargaining that produced this contract, one of the union negotiators was kidnapped off the street and has not been seen since. The other leaders stayed inside the plant for 32 days af- ter his disappearance. Now they will try to negotiate an addendum to the contract, to ensure that the dependents of any worker who is disappeared will continue to receive his salary. The government of General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores appears willing to allow a degree of union or- ganization and activity as long as it re- mains within the bounds of strictly union concerns and does not become overtly anti-government. Thus when asked about the effect on labor of set- backs suffered by the guerrilla move- ment, union leaders invariably reply that there is no connection between the two struggles. In June a reform slate took office in SCTM, the municipal workers' union in Guatemala City. It took two-thirds of the votes with an eight-point pro- gram that could have been lifted from a similar program in any U.S. city. The program calls for higher wages and weekly paychecks. The SCTM A priest says mass in the warehouse for the occupying Coke workers. leaders want an end to outside con- tracting, unjust firings, forced early retirement and having to provide their own tools. Asked about government repression, they say their business is not with the government but with the mayor. One of their biggest problems is that only about 3,000 of the city's 7,000 employees are union members; the office workers and profession- als-las corbatas (the ties)--consider themselves above the street cleaners, drivers, construction workers and park employees from which the new slate is largely drawn. It sounds familiar. But in May another compafiero was added to the union's list of martyrs. The incoming grievance chairman lived at the union hall for two months. "This is what can happen," he says, "when you don't have a strong union." Fragile Upturn Two recent strikes signal improved opportunities for union activity. After receiving no paychecks for four weeks, workers in a Chimaltenango factory an hour's drive from the capi- tal struck for three and a half days in protest. They received two weeks' pay. And workers at the ALINSA aluminum plant appear to have been inspired by the Coke example. On June 17, management fired 12 union members and five members of the ex- ecutive committee, reducing the workforce to only 19. The workers occupied the plant, and other unions came to their aid. CONUS came to the plant on the second day. Over 20 un- ions sent telegrams to the employer and to the Ministry of Labor and bought radio time for denuncias. The Coke union got its international feder- ation to send telegrams, even though the strikers were not federation mem- bers. Though impressive, the solidar- ity was unsuccessful in reversing the firings, and management accom- plished its goal of busting the union: under Guatemalan law a union must have at least 20 members. Union leaders are cautious when speaking of the upturn in activity. "It's a change for the moment," says one union officer. "Trade union lib- erty does not exist. But necessity is making us struggle." "We don't want to be martyrs," says another union leader. And yet they continue the same activities that have caused the deaths of so many of their fellow members. The history of the Guatemalan labor movement is the history of its martyrs. Unions have been wise to develop the custom of rotating leadership. At selection time the incumbents will step aside to allow others to gain experience. In this way Guatemalan workers have been able to keep the government from destroying the movement by picking off its leaders.

Tags: Guatemala, labor movement, Coca Cola, occupation, unions

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