Union Busting: Castle & Cooke in Honduras

September 25, 2007

Castle & Cooke is well-known in the U.S. for the Dole bananas and pineapples it markets. In Honduras, it is becoming well known for its systematic moves to destroy the progressive agricultural labor movement. In March of this year, over 200 union leaders on a Castle & Cooke plantation were arrested, imprisoned and tortured. The company engineered the raid because the workers had been demanding better working conditions and a new labor contract. When most of the plantation workforce went out on strike to protest the arrests, the army imposed a virtual state of seige on the region, forcing the striking workers at gunpoint to return to their jobs. But things haven't always been so favorable for Castle & Cooke in Honduras. First, the hegemony of the banana companies was challenged in late 1972 when a bloodless army coup ushered in promises of sweeping change. Under Oswaldo Lopez Arellano, a loose political coalition led by young army officers and drawing support from a professional petty bourgeoisie, attempted to change Honduras' role as a traditional banana republic. This coalition sought the creation of a modern capitalistsociety through the initiation of a number of social and economic reforms. Foremost among these measures was an agrarian reform law that challenged the 40 privileged status of the two largest transnational corporations in Honduras-United Brands and Castle & Cooke. Second, in late 1974, Hurricane Fifi swept through Honduras, destroying many of the banana producing areas. Castle & Cooke was unwilling to replant and rebuild the more heavily damaged plantations, so it dismissed some workers. In one area called "Las Isletas," the workers responded by taking control and rebuilding with financial assistance from the government. Under provisions of the agrarian reform law, they formed an "Empresa Campesina Asociativa, " or self-managed enterprise. Other plantations owned by Castle & Cooke were also taken over, either through government or worker intervention, and formed into Empresas Asocia tivas. Simultaneously, the labor union that represents all of Castle & Cooke's plantation workers, SUTRASFCO (the United Union of Workers of the Standard Fruit Company*), was growing more militant. The old leaders of the union, with their class-collaborationist policies, were finally voted out of office. Most of them had been trained by the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AlFLD), a CIA-influenced branch of the AFL-CIO, and initially organized under the direction of ORIT, the AFL-CIO's Latin American regional affiliate. Under new leadership, the union demanded improved living conditions and better salaries for its members, most of whom received less than $3.50 per day. All of this made Castle & Cooke, according to one company executive, "even consider pulling out of the country." In 1974 and 1975, further problems arose for the transnational banana corporations. A special banana tax was levied by the governments of the banana exporting nations of Latin America. But the companies quickly maneuvered to divide the governments against each other. In the case of Honduras, United Brands made a "special payment" of $1.5 million to Lopez Arellano in exchange for a low export tax. However, there was an unexpected turn of events. A U.S. investigation into the affairs of United Brands uncovered the Honduran bribe, in the midst of which the president of United Brands committed suicide. In Honduras, a group of ambitious army officers, led by Juan Alberto Melgar Castro, used the disclosure of the bribe to oust the discredited Lopez Arellano from office in December, 1976. Under the new military government, the situation began to look up for Castle & Cooke. The senior legal advisor to the new government was none other than the head of the law firm representing Castle & Cooke and United Brands in Honduras. Another member of the same law firm soon became Minister of Labor. By early 1977, Castle & Cooke was now ready to move against the militant plantation workers. In February, the leaders of the NACLA Reportupdate * update . update * update Empresa Asociativa of Las Isletas were arrested on fake charges of "mismanagement of funds" and "communist control." Next, the army appointed new directors to the Empresas who quickly signed a ten-year agreement binding them to sell all of their production to Castle-& Cooke. This agreement, while short of returning the plantation to Castle & Cooke, was important to the corporation. The Empresa had been contemplating expor- ting its three million boxes of bananas (at U.S. $2.65 a box) through COMUNBANA, the marketing arm of the Union of Banana Exporting Countries, instead of through Castle & Cooke as they had previously done. The corporation was intent on starving COMUNBANA of suppliers, and consequently was pleased by the ten-year agreement. Then, the company moved to break the militants on its own plantations, in anticipation of a fight over the June contract renewal. It encouraged 35 union members, some of whom had been voted out of office earlier, to begin agitation against the progressive union leadership. Finding no sympathetic response among the rank and file, they decided to call a "special convention." On the appointed day the army moved in, arresting 200 of the more militant union leaders and guarding the 35 workers who declared themselves the new union leaders. An ensuing wildcat strike of the 6,000 plantation workers was quickly crushed, and within 48 hours Castle & Cooke, along with the Ministry of Labor, recognized the newly self-proclaimed leaders as the official representatives. A new contract was reportedly signed but as one worker told NACLA, "we haven't seen it and have no idea what its terms are." From the company's standpoint the terms have definitely improved. As the head of the banana division in Honduras said, "political pressures are not as intense as they used to be and we can move ahead. Banana shipments have increased, pineapple production has been stepped up, and the company is even beginning to experiment with the growing and shipping of vegetables to the eastern markets of the United States." Castle & Cooke's diversification manager declared that "cheap labor and cheap land will enable us to undercut the Florida growers who produce for the winter vegetable market." The workers on Castle & Cooke's plantations, while initially stunned by the wave of repression, have begun to regroup and reorganize with the assistance of other political forces in the region. Some are orchestrating a campaign for the release of nine workers from Las Isletas who still remain in prison. The hold of the imposed union leaders is tenuous, and they remain in office only with the support of army bayonets. As one worker, who had recently been imprisoned and fired after 27 years with Castle & Cooke, explained: "We have suffered heavier blows from the banana companies and recovered. We will do the same again." by Roger Burbach, a member of the NACLA-West Agribusiness Project, writing from Honduras. *The subsidiary of Castle & Cooke in Honduras is called the Standard Fruit and Shipping Company.

Tags: Honduras, labor repression, banana plantations, Castle & Cooke

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