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Honduran Workers' Union Under Attack
by Andy Lucker
On the Worker Rights Consortium's website, there are Factory Reports on textile factories around the world. Recently, the sweatshop spotlight has been stolen by the recent WRC Factory Reports on the Jerzees factory in Choloma, Honduras, owned by Russell Athletic. The factory was later, partially sold to Fruit of the Loom and currently produces Russell and Fruit of the Loom clothing. Fruit of the Loom had a more antagonistic management strategy, and as workers and labor organizers from the factory told United Students Against Sweatshops on the phone in October 2008, the company promised workers they "would never coexist with a union."
When trying to unionize, the bosses tried to beat them to it by forming their own union at the factory, organized by and for management; these are often called "yellow unions" in Mexico. But the workers were too strong. The workers' union had so much support from workers at Jerzees, the bosses could not contend. Throughout the workers' struggle, they have faced death threats, blacklisting, and countless other horrors, only to reach 2009, when the Jerzees factory was shut down.
Russell and Fruit of the Loom claimed the factory was "closing for production reasons," feigning this as a way to divide workers and fuel anti-union sentiment. Fruit of the Loom attempted to pit workers against the union by convincing them it excused laziness and unproductiveness. Throughout much of the most intense struggle (October 2008-January 2009), the workplace was split, 50/50, with union workers being on the defensive from anti-union pabulums about the union forcing Fruit of the Loom to leave.
Maquiladoras in Honduras are owned and controlled by a handful of capitalists who can easily "help" each other by sharing information on key workers ...
Russell had three factories in Honduras. Yet, this was their only factory that had a union, and they were also the only one currently negotiating a collective bargaining agreement. Russell and Fruit of the Loom claimed the current economic crisis forced them to cut back on production, and because the Jerzees union gave workers a voice and protected their rights, Russell and Fruit of the Loom saw the Jerzees factory as the most cost effective factory to close.
Intimidation was conducted in several ways, but blacklisting was the predominate tactic. Blacklists were made by using references before hiring to ask questions about any potential union background. Companies network to carry out illegal anti-union strategies in Export Processing Zones (EPZ). They enter union workers' and organizers' identification numbers and names into a centralized computer system, which allows (due to relaxed EPZ policies) businesses to disseminate information on them. Maquiladoras in Honduras are owned and controlled by a handful of capitalists who can easily "help" each other by sharing information on key workers and organizers to make sure no factory in all Honduras has a union strong enough to showcase workers' power to self-manage, organize, and act.
The closing of Jerzees is a common policy. A similar process happened when Gildan Activewear cut back and reallocated production previously in a factory in El Progreso, Honduras.  In El Progreso, some of the most hideous anti-union tactics and strategies imaginable were used; but after a lot of activism in the United States that forced firms here to not purchase any clothes from this factory, Gildan decided that it could either cave and allow the workers to resist, or it could sprawl out production to make sure company practices could not be efficiently monitored by organizations like the WRC. Gildan, Russell, and Fruit of the Loom have all gone with the second strategy for their class warfare. It allows them to feign that unions promote workers to be lazy and ultimately drive businesses out of the Third World. Also, it allows for nonsensical neoliberal theorists to babble on and on about market forces.
...it allows for nonsensical neoliberal theorists to babble on and on about market forces.
Less economically developed countries today face a different world than England, France, and the US did in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, industrial capital is in abundance and can be conveniently moved and stopped by private interests on whim. Honduran workers are not asking to bargain collectively with a developing business - Gildan, Russell, and Fruit of the Loom are enormous institutions that can take a financial hit to their pocketbook in this crisis, and they will probably all survive unscathed. Likewise, developing Western Europe hundreds of years ago did not have to face such a highly financed and technologically advanced police or paramilitary force (stronger than any 18th or 19th century military) on a picket line.
It is essential that we call neoclassical economists out on conventional historical inaccuracies of markets, their development, and the global economy. Markets have not given the developed or underdeveloped world what we want, and they will not. American workers do not want 14 year-old girls to be raped and killed in sweatshops around the world. Market forces function quite differently: Markets create consumer dissatisfactions and insecurities to want whatever markets vomit on the shelves. It is not until workers in US plants stand in solidarity with workers in Honduras, El Salvador, South Africa, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and workers from the rest of the world, that we will see the end of such social degradation. May the global rank-and-file unite!
Jerzees de Honduras Testimony
My name is Moises Elisias a Bovado. I was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and I am 28 years old. I've worked at Jerzees for Jerzees for almost exactly three years. I am president of the leadership committee. I have a partner and a young daughter, almost two years old. Also, now that my mother is older and my sister is in school, I have to contribute to support them.
When I first started working at the factory, things were much better. It was not a great job and the salary was low, but there were some good benefits, including a program for workers to get loans from the company (called "plan cien"). The factory was owned by Russell Athletic. About two years ago, the company was bought by Fruit of the Loom and things changed for the worse. They took away the loan program many of us relied on. The old supervisors were replaced by new ones, who constantly disrespected and abused us at work. They would fire workers just because the supervisors didn't like them.
So we made a decision to organize ourselves, to try to improve things at the factory. I was elected president of the leadership committee of the union. The company responded harshly. They fired many of the workers who founded the union, including me, right after we started. But through international support, especially from the US universities, we were able to get our jobs back.
With the support of the General Center for Workers (CGT), we continued organizing to improve things. Through struggle, little by little we started making progress. The factory's water was dirty and contaminated. We got the company to replace it with clean, purified water. The company tried to pay us with a formula that was against the law. We got the company to pay correctly.
But the company never accepted the idea of a union. An assistant to the production manager told us in a meeting that if we continue with the union, they were going to close the factory. That was in March of this year. Another confidential employee told me in June that he knew for a fact that the factory would close because of the union.
Eventually, the government confirmed our right to negotiate a union contract. When we presented our proposal, the company was shocked. They didn't think the government would go against their interests and confirm our right to negotiate. In the negotiation meetings, the company was totally closed off. The refused to provide a child care center, even through this is required by the law. The only wage increase they would agree to was basically meaningless. They only offered to pay us 5 cents a day more than we are making now.
The anti-union campaign got worse. The second in command of one of the departments went around during work hours telling workers that if they wanted to keep their jobs they needed to sign a petition against the union. We complained to management and they said there was nothing they could do. We wanted to bring in our union's lawyer to meet about this and the company refused to allow her in the factory.
It is so dangerous what the company is doing. They managers and the supervisors have been telling everyone that they will lose their jobs because of us. And for this, there have been threats. No long ago, when I came back to my sewing machine after lunch, there was a note on it. It said, "You are going to die. Because of you this factory will close." I have gotten two notes like that. We went to management and they didn't do anything. There is graffiti on the wall in the bathrooms, saying they will put an AK47 to the union president's chest, referring to me. Another said, by God they will cut off my head. I am not the only one who has been threatened. One of the women leaders has been threatened too.
Then the company announced two weeks ago that they are going to go through with it and close the factory. The whole room fell silent. And everyone here knows why. This will send the message to everyone in Honduras that if you stand up for your rights, this is what will happen. This means 1,800 people will have no jobs and no way to live. We need to do anything we can do to stop the company from going ahead with this.
As human beings, if we buy and consume a product, we should be sure that the brand is respecting the rights of the people who work to make the products. If possible, we should join together to work on a campaign against this, the closing of our factory, which we think is unjust and illegal. I believe that it is the customer that rules; it is the consumer who controls the decision of what kinds of brands to purchase. This company (Russell) has a code of conduct, which it is attempting to evade. I want people to stand in solidarity with us, and to understand that for us, there are not a lot of opportunities for work in our country.
from Moises Elisias a Bovado, President, Leadership Committee
Andy Lucker is twenty-two years old and lives in Southern Illinois. Andy has been involved in Left-wing activism since the War on Afghanistan.
1. Worker Rights Consortium Factory Reports on the Jerzees factory in Choloma, Honduras, can be found at: http://workersrights.org/Freports/JerzeesCholoma.asp.
2. Workers stressed the following differences in the companies' business management strategies. Russell gave bonuses; Fruit of the Loom gives no bonuses. Fruit of the Loom requires meeting quotas that have increased with more workers meeting them, and when they are not met, workers must work unpaid overtime; together, this results in the guarantee of higher production and less wages for workers. If quotas were exceeded, Russell would reward workers, whereas Fruit of the Loom does nothing. Nonetheless, when the WRC investigated the factory, back when it was owned by Russell, it found numerous violations of labor laws.
3. The WRC Factory Reports on the Kukdong factory in Mexico can be found here: http://workersrights.org/Freports/Kukdong.asp. Similar anti-union management strategies of forming a bosses' union happened at the PT Dada factory in Indonesia: http://workersrights.org/Freports/PTDada.asp.
4. Export Processing Zones are areas (states, cities, or even just a factory), like that of the Jerzees factory, that offer incentives to companies to carry on trade practices as an export oriented development strategy. Gopalakrishnan, Ramapriya. International Labor Standards Department, Working Paper No. 1. Freedom of association and collective bargaining in export processing zones: Role of the ILO supervisory mechanisms. International Labor Organization Office. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---normes/documents/publication/wcms_087917.pdf.
5. WRC Factory Reports on Gildan Activewear in El Progreso, Honduras: http://workersrights.org/Freports/gildan.asp.
6. The workers mentioned that this strategy is actually illegal in Honduras, but it is constantly used - just like intimidating workers from organizing in the US is technically illegal, but happens all the time.
[26 sep 09]