Colombian GM Workers Hunger Strike to Protest Dangerous Factory
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
In Detroit, General Motors held their annual shareholders meeting.
And we are now joined by Frank Hammer. He is a retired GM employee of 32 years, former president of United Auto Workers Local 909. And he also worked in the GM Department of United Auto Workers. He is currently a labor organizer at the School of Americas Watch. And Frank was among those demonstrating outside the shareholders meeting on behalf of workers injured at a Bogotá, Colombia, plant.
Now, Frank, tell us more about why you were there in front of the GM shareholders meeting.
FRANK HAMMER, COFOUNDER, AUTOWORKER CARAVAN: I was there in support of the Colombian workers who are continuing to struggle for a just settlement with General Motors in Colombia. And their struggle has been quite an inspiration for many, many auto workers here in the Detroit area, particularly because it’s now into the 22nd month of an occupation in front of the embassy, and these workers have endured three hunger strikes, and as you’ve reported previously in The Real News, that’s even included sewing their lips shot.
This struggle sort of dramatizes the struggle that’s going on for workers pretty much around the globe. I want to point to what happened in Bangladesh with over 1,100 garment workers dying in an unsafe building that collapsed. We can talk about what happened at the fertilizer facility in Texas that I think hadn’t been reviewed by OSHA since 1985, had an explosion, killed a number of workers and demolished the community. We had the miners in West Virginia that 29 lost their lives because of unsafe conditions.
And what’s critical in all of these is that there are very lax regulations, whether abroad or here at home. There’s a suppression of unions. For example, in the situation of Colombia, GM prevents a union from forming in its facility. And in the absence of a union what happens is that there’s no voice for the workers in regards to health and safety.
And the workers in Colombia, we don’t have any deaths, but we do have over 200 bona fide employees who reported to the Colombian government, to the inspector general, with spinal injuries and rotator cuff injuries, wrist injuries, as a result of the working conditions in the facility. Rather than address the situation, GM acted illegally to access the medical records of these workers and actually changed some of the records and used those records to identify the workers that were suffering from the injuries and found ways to fire them. So they engaged in violations of Colombian law, such as it is, and they have not owned up to it to this day that their illegal behavior is what’s resulted in these workers losing their jobs rather than being placed on other jobs in the facility that they can do, which is required by Colombian law.
NOOR: So, Frank, talk about what you are calling for General Motors to do and your response to the fact that they have publicly defended their conduct in this matter.
HAMMER: Well, I think that General Motors actually has been speaking out of two sides of its mouth. In an interview that, Jaisal, you did with Katie McBride of General Motors, she admitted that GM walked away from the table when the workers did not accept what was called their final offer.
Now, I think what’s critical to understand is that there’s no reason for GM to have been engaged in the negotiations if they didn’t understand that they had culpability, if they didn’t understand that they were responsible. They don’t normally enter into negotiations with anybody unless they feel they have a responsibility to do so. But what they did is they offered a pittance, in the idea that these Colombian workers, most of whom are indigenous, would have accepted some kind of pittance for a settlement. And when the workers rejected the offer, GM did in fact walk away from the table. But publicly what they have said is that, oh, we have made such generous offers; we don’t understand why these Colombians don’t just accept our generous offer; and claimed that the Colombians–ASOTRECOL and Jorge Parra–were the ones that walked away from the table. And that’s absolutely untrue. And it’s even in their own statement that it’s untrue. GM walked away.
And all that the workers–what the workers are asking for GM to do is to recognize that they’re culpable for their condition and to address them either by reinstating them for work that they can do, compensating them for back wages, dealing with their medical condition, and letting them continue their lives.
They were model workers at GM before they were fired. Most of them had, you know, eight, nine, ten years of seniority. They had impeccable records. And, in fact, on the one day off, these workers were volunteers in a social program that the GM Colmotores plant had in Bogotá. So these were model employees. These were workers that GM should be very proud of and should be treating accordingly. But they’re not.
And I think that it would help for people to also understand that a year or so ago, a labor action plan was negotiated between the Colombian government and the U.S. government to facilitate the passing of the Colombia free-trade agreement. And in that labor action plan, it stipulates that there are certain things that, if GM was held to task, that GM no longer would be able to do. But there still continue to be flagrant violations of, even now, the labor action plan.
NOOR: So, Frank, as you mentioned, the workers are in their 22nd month of occupying the space in front of the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. What are the next steps the workers going to take? And, like, what’s their current condition? Like, what state are they in?
HAMMER: ASOTRECOL, the association of the injured and fired workers, has offered a proposal to General Motors to come to an agreement so that the struggle can come to a completion. They’re currently still occupying this makeshift tent in front of the U.S. embassy. They have had discussions with the U.S. ambassador in Bogotá. There are suggestions that there may be talks. And we’re urging people here in the United States to call the plant in Colmotores, to call the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, to urge these parties to come together to a just settlement for the workers in the encampment.
I have to tell you that as a result of this struggle, GM has in fact made improvements in the factory. They have introduced robots in the areas which had the highest incidence of injuries. Most recently they announced $6 million investments in ergonomics improvements. They discharged some of the people that were responsible for the co-mingling of the private medical records with GM’s own records. So there have been certain actions that GM has already taken in response to these workers in this valiant battle. And now what the workers are saying: you must address our needs and bring this story to a completion.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us, Frank.
HAMMER: Thank you.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.