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Growing In Unity

Trade Unions

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Trade Unions / SOLIDARITY

Growing in unity
Against all the odds, the unions in Latin America's banana plantations are showing
what 'sustainable development' might really mean, says Alistair Smith.

[image, unknown] When the 80 delegates to the Latin American Banana Workers’ Union Co-ordination (COLSIBA) conference finally arrived in Urabá, Colombia, last August they found that local banana unions had created an ‘Experiment in Peace’.

In the last three years union leaders and others associated with the banana workers’ campaigns for justice have been killed in Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras and the Philippines. Between 1999 and 2000 over 40,000 banana jobs were lost in Latin America. In Ecuador, Nicaragua and Belize average pay is now well below the level of a living wage. Bananas have been identified as a clear example of the injustices of the global food economy. Toxic chemical warfare against the pests and diseases that spread with banana production has reinforced the hard truth about the workings of the international banana trade.

But in Urabá genocidal massacres have given way to an inspiring process of peaceful reconstruction. COLSIBA has led its unions and their 45,000 members out of the ideological trenches and into new struggles. Old labour-movement solidarity has found new possibilities with union members elsewhere, including the North. ‘Surely, the members of UNISON, IG-Metall, the CGT or the AFL-CIO eat bananas too, don’t they?’ the banana unions ask.

The strongest of the 40-or-so independent unions in COLSIBA is the Colombian Agricultural Workers’ Union, SINTRAINAGRO. It organizes 90 per cent of the Urabá banana workers. The history of the union is inextricably linked to the bloody internecine politics of competing revolutionary guerrilla movements here – as is also the case in Guatemala. ‘EPL’ now stands not for the disbanded Popular Liberation Army but for Esperanza, Paz y Libertad – Hope, Peace and Freedom: a political movement with elected mayors currently running innovative local governments in several of Urabá’s biggest municipalities.

So peace is possible in this wild corner of the Americas. Urabá is a decreasingly fragile experiment where ‘ordinary people’ are putting into practice some of the key principles of sustainable development. It is a society where – as I can personally testify – plantation supervisors and their families drink and dance in the same bars as unionized workers. Happiness, laughter and a strong sense of purpose now walk the same streets where a few years ago only armed men stalked.

[image, unknown] The theme of this conference – ‘Growing in Unity’ – was not idly chosen. At the heart of the rebirth of Urabá is the banana union. To the distaste of some in the labour movement, it promotes itself as an empresa social de los trabajadores – a workers’ social enterprise. The fact is that Urabá banana workers enjoy an annually renegotiated collective employment contract, good worker-management relations, increasing productivity, improving health-and-safety provision and, from last year, an employer-led environmental and social programme called ‘Banatura’. Of the 300-or-so plantations, 5 are successfully run by workers’ co-operatives supported by SINTRAINAGRO. The union’s educational and training programmes are the envy of other unions.

In Costa Rica and Honduras COLSIBA member unions have built alliances with other social movements to start their own models of development with a human heart and soul. They are increasingly clear about what works and what doesn’t at ground level.

This means new strategies for unions. As one Central American union leader put it to the conference: ‘The trade union has to be a launching pad for ideas, a place where you can arrive, discuss matters and express yourself, where you can talk and contribute. If trade unions are to continue to exist they have to share, they have to be tolerant and they have to be firm in their convictions. They should be part of society and in the hearts of the people.’

So shouldn’t we all be reaching for our fairly traded bananas… and wine to toast such a clear proposition?

Alistair Smith is the Co-ordinator of Banana Link in Norwich, Britain.
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