APRIL 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 4
L A B O R
Strikebreaking In Guatemla
by Jim Sugarman
Escuintla, Guatemala--In January 1989, farm workers at the massive cotton and sugar plantations of southern Guatemala went on strike. By January 24, according to Labor and Popular Unity in Action (UASP), one of the groups organizing the strike, 40,000 people had joined the strike, demanding an increase in their minimum wage of $3.20 to $3.70 a day. Hoping for a repeat of the 1980 victory when 75,000 strikers forced the establishment of a minimum wage, the small farmers again left the stifling fields in the counties of Escuintla and Retalhuleu to protest wages that no longer meet the cost of living.
For hundreds of years the owners of Guatemala's largest plantations have relied on the cheap labor of the indigenous population to gather and process their seasonal crops. These workers are predominantly small farmers who come from the northern highlands of Guatemala. Since colonial times, land ownership in Guatemala has been concentrated in the hands of a small elite. A 1980 study by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) reported that 9 out of 10 farms in the northern region were too small to feed the families living on them. Consequently, as many as 600,000 farmers travel to the south coast every year to supplement their meager incomes.
According to a 1982 AID study, Guatemala had the most unequal land distribution of any Latin American nation. A few hundred of Guatemala's wealthiest families control 80 percent of the land in the south, some of Central America's most fertile ground. Forty-seven families control 75 percent of cotton production while 94 percent of the sugar produced comes from the country's 10 largest sugar mills. With so many people living on land plots which are not big enough to support them, the few large land holders have an almost bottomless pool of labor. Wages are extremely low and there are reports that workers are both abused and cheated by employers.
Low wages are the rule rather than the exception on most plantations. Younger workers are paid even less than adults because the largely unenforced wage laws do not apply to them. The Botran family (makers of the internationally known rum, Ron Botran), pay the laborers who supply their Santa Ana sugar refinery only US $0.93 per ton of cane brought to the refinery. Workers cannot cut more than two tons in a 12 hour day and therefore, cannot earn more than $1.86 per day though this is well below the legal minimum wage. And still workers say they must fight to keep from being cheated when their cane is weighed.
According to Bob Stix of the U.S.-based Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, workers also face severe repression from the police and military. The military uses death threats to try to keep small farmers from working with the unions. "The Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) is seen as a subversive organization by the army," says Stix. "They are under constant threat. People are killed every day by the army and security forces in Guatemala; they don't need to get the warning leaflets that the death squads leave at their doors to know that their lives are at risk."
Roberto Alejos is a well known political figure in Guatemala. Prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion he provided the United States with a place to train Cuban troops. At his plantation, El Salto, farm workers said they make $1.85 per day of which all but $0.75 is taken to pay for their food. Any hopes these workers might have had for unionization died in 1980 when 12 union leaders at El Salto were killed, forcing the union to dissolve.
Recent price hikes in staples such as beans and milk have further worsened the situation. But the increasing misery has led to more popular organizing, particularly by the outlawed CUC which was the primary organizer of the January strike. The CUC is a member of Labor and Popular Unity in Action (UASP) which later joined in organizing the strike. UASP, the largest confederation of popular organizations in Guatemala, is composed of unions, campesino groups, organizations of families of the disappeared, as well as student and religious groups. It was formed in 1988 to protest the large increase in the cost of living.
Before the strike, UASP and CUC took out newspaper and radio ads which stated the demands of the campesinos. They called for increasing the minimum wage to $3.70 a day or per ton of cotton or sugarcane cut and weekly payments (currently workers are paid at the end of each season which can last up to five months), provision of edible food for workers, provision of medicine to sick workers, observance of labor laws and an end to personal threats.
UASP and CUC asked to meet with the growers and the owners of the refineries to negotiate as worker representatives in order to avoid a strike and the accompanying repression that has always followed attempts at organizing in Guatemala.
The strike came at the height of the cane-cutting season when workers are needed most in the fields, although the majority of the cotton crop had already been picked. The strength of the strike varied from plantation to plantation ranging from isolated, individual actions to complete work stoppages. Some strikers blocked trucks from entering the refineries, preventing the cane that had already been cut from being processed. There were also unconfirmed reports that some strikers were burning the cane in the fields.
The owners reacted swiftly. They refused to meet with labor representatives and instead called in the military as well as the national police. Bus loads of antimotines, riot police in dark blue jump suits, carrying the latest U.S. police equipment, arrived at the Santa Ana refinery on January 24 to disperse the strikers who had gathered to block the gates. The police moved a crowd of about 200 away from the heavily guarded entrance and drove the company trucks in themselves, while strikers continued to demonstrate at the site.
The police also brought along members of the local media to record the event. But the commanders refused to comment on the strike to members of the international media. The Guatemalan military owns one TV station and is said to have financial interests in two others.
After an hour stand-off, the workers began to disperse, fearing that the police would soon go on the offensive. Many remembered the 1980 strike when soldiers raided the galeras--long concrete floors with metal roofs where the workers and families live for the season--destroying the belongings of the workers on the picket-line.
The security forces were also brought to the other major plantations. At El Salto, the military confiscated the workers' machetes which few workers can easily afford to replace. Soldiers also copied the identification papers of those participating in the strike and threatened reprisals when the campesinos returned to their isolated villages in the northern highlands.
This is a particularly effective threat since the northern villages have been devastated by massacres in recent years. Just two months before the strike, 22 farm workers were found strangled to death in the village of Aguacate. Though the government blames the crime on the guerillas, many of the strikers are convinced it was committed by the army. Such actions discourage people from seeking change. "There exists a movement here, but the repression is too effective," said Pedro, a CUC organizer.
El Baul, a plantation owned by a branch of the Herrera family which also owns the largest refinery in the country, locked its workers behind the 15 foot high fences that surround the galeras and claimed that there was no strike. Although fewer than 20 soldiers patrolled the area, some were members of the elite U.S.-trained Kaibil forces. These soldiers, who are modelled on the Green Berets, are well known in northern Guatemala. It is alleged that they committed the worst of the atrocities in the early-to-mid 1980s. Despite the fact that the workers at El Baul were asking for the same $3.70 minimum wage that the rest of the striking Guatemalan workers had demanded, El Baul administrators claimed that workers there were already paid $4.81 a day. Administrators also stated that their farmers were provided with schools and health care, and worked eight hours or less a day. Workers at El Baul, however, deny that these facilities or conditions exist.
The combined efforts of the plantation owners and the security forces succeeded in ending most of the strikes within the first few days. The owners were able to present their case in detail to the Guatemalan public through the media. Their statements included accusations that the UASP and CUC organizers were armed, that they were intimidating the farm workers, and that armed foreigners posing as journalists were threatening the workers. These allegations were never examined critically by the local press. An editor of a regional news journal commented that the assassinations of more than 40 reporters in the 1980s have deterred journalists from challenging statements by powerful members of the right.
By the second day of the strike both radio and television reports indicated that the strike was over. Since security forces had prohibited organizers from entering the plantations and talking with the strikers, this was the only information available to them and many who were still on strike quit when they heard those reports. New groups claiming to represent the campesinos suddenly emerged, making statements on radio and in paid advertisements. These groups warned of communist agitators and denounced CUC, saying that the group had provoked the massacre of thousands of workers. The ads stated that if this strike continued the Guatemalan farm workers would be like the miserable workers in Nicaragua and Cuba. No spokespersons or members of these groups could be found, but plantation owners announced their willingness to meet with them.
By the fourth day only a few isolated plantations remained on strike. The owners held their ground, refusing to meet or consider any of their workers' demands. Three workers were reported missing and thousands were evicted from their quarters. The farmers must now return to their homes in the north without money to feed their families until their own crops are ready.
Jim Sugarman has just returned from a five month trip in Central America.