This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
Guatemala City at the beginning of 1981 was a distressing place to be. Nervous military policemen in bottle-green uniforms hovered on every street corner, clustering in ever larger defensive formations the closer they got to the Presidential Palace.
The garish green and red headlines of the daily press announced the latest victims of the right-wing death squads along with the routine pictures of bodies sprawled awkwardly over piles of refuse.
The middle of a civil war in one of the most repressive countries in the world is not the place you’d look for an historic victory on human rights. Yet January 1981 saw the culmination of a remarkable international effort on behalf of Guatemalan workers.
The story starts back in 1956 when American lawyer John C. Trotter bought the Coca-cola franchise in Guatemala. Directing operations from his office in Houston. Trotter made it clear that he would fiercely oppose any trade union activity. So in 1975 when a group of workers actually wanted to register with the government a new union for the plant 150 of them were summarily dismissed. The union was made official but Trotter refused to recognise it.
The workers looked for overseas support They got it first from the churches the Chicago-based Catholic Churches Social Action Committee and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in New York. But still the management refused to budge and in 1978 a series of death threats were issued to union members.
Towards the end of 1978 union general secretary Israel Marquez narrowly escaped a machine gun attack at his home. Then on December 12th after receiving a death threat from Trotter, the union’s financial secretary. Pedro Quevado. was assassinated on his delivery round shot eight times in the chest and four times in the face. On April 5th the following year. the new general secretary, again having been wamed by the management was seized on his delivery round beaten with an iron tube and had his throat slit.
The workers then started a boycott of Coca-Cola products in Guatemala. And in June 1979 intemational support was stepped up through Amnesty International and the International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF). Still the killings went on relentlessly. The body of union leader Anulfo Gomez. for example, was found with his lips slashed with razor blades, his tongue cut out and placed in his shirt pocket and his toes and fingernails broken. Unions in the food and drink industry all over the world began to put pressure on Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters. The company response was that they had no control over their overseas franchise holders ‘their hands were tied’.
The unions gave this reply no more credence than it deserved and meetings were held with 70 unions in 30 countries. Coke bottling plant workers in Australia. New Zealand. Norway and Sweden made (token) production stoppages in protest Cables flashed around the world to Atlanta to demand that the company take action. Others were sent to Guatemala to give moral support to the beleaguered workers. They needed it In April 1980 a sit-down protest was broken up by the police with machine guns and teargas.
But then the US executives started to get rattled. Consumer boycotts were organised in Belgium Canads. Denmark France, Norway, the Philippines. Spain.Sweden. Venezuela and the USA. As ‘Boycott Coca-Cola’ stickers defaced the company’s posters. sales began to be affected and the great rival Pepsi was making inroads particularly in the Nordic countries. The time had come for action. In July 1980 worried Coca-Cola managers managers descended on the I U F offices in Geneva to make a deal one of the most significant examples ever of a multinational corporation negotiating with a multinational union group.
Coke wanted peace. The franchise they said, was now to be passed to a new operator who would recognise the union.
Fired workers would be reinstated and the company would finance a fund to compensate the families of the workers who had lost their lives in the dispute.
In the end a remarkable victory for union and action group pressure and a lesson too for the corporations. Many watched the case with interest; and IBM is among those who have asked Coke for a rundown on the operation. A precedent has been set.
IT started in 1977 as little more than a flurry of concern by Argentinian exiles in Toronto about human rights abuses in their homeland Two years later the ‘No Candu for Argentina’ campaign had become the single most dramatic example of Canadian trade union solidarity with workers in the Third World.
Before the South Atlantic war the Latin American nation had been portrayed as a staunch Western ally; the regime’s military junta had successfully subdued a pesky movement of revolutionary guerrillas and was fighting to keep a tottering economy on an even keel.
The reality, however, was far more ugly. Since March 24, 1976. Argentina has been ruled by a military dictatorship whose prime concern has been to rid the country of ‘subversives’ — anyone with vaguely liberal beliefs.
For the handful of Argentinians in Canada the natural point of contact was the Candu nuclear reactor that Ottawa had sold to Buenos Aires in 1973. The Candu, say its critics, is the ideal equipment for producing fissionable, bomb-quality plutonium under the guise of a domestic energy programme. It is estimated that one 600-megawatt Candu could produce enough plutonium for 35 Hiroshima-size bombs a year.
Stopping the Candu became both an organizing focus for the ‘No Candu Committee’ and a concrete demand that could be made of the Canadian government.
The deal should be suspended, the Committee argued, until a democratically-elected Argentine government signed the International NonProliferation Treaty: until trade union and civil rights were restored; until all political prisoners were released: and until the 20,000 ‘disappeared’ persons were accounted for.
Because of the junta’s strong-armed attempt to smother Argentina’s powerful union movement, organized labour in Canada was an obvious focus for the work of the No Candu Committee. Says Committee member and former Ontario Federation of Labour Human Rights Officer, Don Lee, ‘Trade unionists responded with an instinctive sense of fraternity even though the measures to restrict union rights in Argentina were unimaginable to most Canadian trade unionists.’
Committee members sweated long hours painstakingly documenting the Argentine military’s human rights abuses. They doggedly telephoned, wrote long letters and told their story to labour gatherings. The result was that more trade unions endorsed the campaign and helped fund the increasing workload of lobbying and education But labour was not the only source of support. Soon a variety of church, environmental and human rights groups had joined to pressure an implacable government to quash the reactor deal.
On a misty July morning in the Atlantic port city of Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1979, two years of careful organizing paid off. The last essential ingredient in the Argentine reactor $120 million worth of heavy water was due to be loaded for shipment to Cordoba After weeks of frenetic behind-the scenes work by the Committee —including a private meeting with Saint John longshoremen — the heavy water shipment was declared ‘Hot Cargo’. When the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and the Saint John Labour Council set up an information picket at the container-port gate, longshoremen and other workers refused to cross it. For one day at least the shipment would stay where it was — a symbolic gesture perhaps, but an important one.
The ‘Hot Cargo’ protest, as it became known, had the support of 48 Canadian labour, church and environmental groups, including the 2.3 million member Canadian Labour Congress.
‘We can’t stop this shipment forever’, Saint John Labour Council President Larry Hanley admitted, ‘but we can draw attention to both the violations of human rights in Argentina and the danger that Argentina may build a nuclear bomb’.
The successful oneday protest stressed the goals of the No Candu Committee but the workers also demanded the release of 16 Argentine trade unionists jailed without charges. Within three days, six of the unionists were released. According to Larry Hanley this focus on individuals was critical ‘Suddenly, we were talking about real people; the issues were no longer vague and distant For us it was fundamentally a question of trade union solidarity. We are not simply isolated workers. The connections have to be made between trade unionists fighting for their rights in the Third World countries who are often employed by the same multinationals we are working for right here in Canada’
Despite growing public outrage at the Candu sale the Canadian government remained adamant in its commitment to honouring a contract signed ‘in good faith’.
Meanwhile the main sticking point of the No Candu campaign that Canada shouldn’t be involved with a regime bent on the wholesale destruction of both trade union and civil rights was attracting more attention amongst Canadian trade unionists. And, surprisingly, many of the unions supporting the campaign had an important stake in the nuclear industry.
Mike Rygus, Canadian vice-president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, put the case bluntly. ‘The production of the Candu equipment in several Canadian cities, some under our jurisdiction, means jobs. However, we must not allow our negligent government to blackmail us into supporting barbarous governments that trample over basic human and trade union rights in such a ruthless manner’.
The 150,000 Canadian members of the United Steel Workers (USW) were also heavily committed to the No Candu campaign Like the Machinists many steelworkers depend on the nuclear industry. Says USW Canadian Education Director D’Arcy Martin, ‘It was always the approach of our union that the purpose of the campaign was not to displace jobs but to emphasize the question of human rights. This moral commitment to international solidarity was the strongest reason for our involvement. ‘The fact that hundreds of metal workers in Argentina were directly affected by the repression there was a solid point of identification for steelworkers here.’
Many unions, in the Amnesty International style, ‘adopted’ individual Argentinian trade unionists in an attempt to have them released from prison. According to D’Arcy Martin it took almost a year of constant pressure through diplomatic channels to pressure the Canadian government to convince the junta to release former Argentine Steelworkers Union Leader Alberto Piccinini. When Piccinini was finally allowed to visit Canada and speak to the Canadian Steelworkers national policy conference the event was a moving display of both solidarity and pride, says Mr Martin.
‘Unity,’ Alberto Piccinini told the hushed audience of Steelworkers, ‘is the unity of all of us; and it must go beyond national boundaries. I am very clear that I am free today because of the struggle first of the people in my country and second because of workers elsewhere — especially in this beautiful country. This creates a commitment that will last for the rest of my life.’
While individual unions continued to press the case of imprisoned and missing fellow workers in Argentina. it was the longshoremen of Saint John who once more put their jobs and income on the line this past June —almost three years after the original ‘Hot Cargo’ protest.
With the Argentinian nuclear fuels fabrication plant behind schedule, the junta decided to purchase 3,000 more fuel bundles from Canada. Details of the shipment were leaked to the public in the height of the Anglo- Argentine conflict Once again the ‘Hot Cargo’ boycott shifted into gear. The Saint John longshoremen voted to refuse to handle any nuclear equipment intended for Argentina. And they were backed by every labour federation in the country including the Canadian Labour Congress. The basic demands of the 1979 protest were unchanged But the union was clear that the boycott was strictly divorced from the patriotic jingoism about the war in the South Atlantic.
‘The military dictatorship of General Galtien is exploiting this dramatic fight to divert attention from the more fundamental fight of Argentina’s people for sovereignty,’ said Larry Hanley. ‘We are acting in solidarity on behalf of the people of Argentina for freedom in their country and peace in our hemisphere.’
Undaunted, the government quickly shunted the fuel rods to Montreal where they were flown by special cargo aircraft to Argentina.
The Candu reactor at Rio Tercero has yet to be commissioned and there are still 1,000 fuel rods on order. But, for the short term at least, Canada’s nuclear dealings with the junta have finished As a result the No Candu Committee has also decided to wind up its work.
‘ We no longer have the opportunity for independent action that would seriously disrupt the junta’s plans,’ says Committee spokesman Don Lee. ‘The question is now exclusively in the hands of the Western governments concerned’.
Committee members will continue to raise questions about human rights abuses in Argentina through a sister organization, the Group for the Defense of Civil Rights in Argentina. And Canadian trade unions will continue to press for the release of political prisoners and the whereabouts of the ‘disappeared’.
Butjust as important is the example the No Candu campaign has created for future cooperation between Canadian trade unions and other organizations involved with Third World solidarity and support work.
‘The No Candu Committee,’ says Steelworker D’Arcy Martin, ‘had both a sophisticated understanding of Canadian labour and a strong pro-labour bias. And that made all the difference. It is our hope that many more such alliances can be made. Because, after all, it’s in the best interest of both trade unions and other groups to work together.’
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
PHOTO ESSAY: For Eritrean migrants, there is more dignity in death
The recent Saudi clampdown on migrant workers has brought campaigners onto the streets. Chris Matthews was with some of them in London.
Vanessa Baird ponders the tactics needed to resist austerity.
Jamie Kelsey-Fry reflects on the movement that has united people around the world.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara argues that we can all improve our wellbeing through traditional medicine and by slowing down.
If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.
– Emma Thompson –
Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.