GM Workers in Colombia Hunger Strike at US Embassy to Protest Dangerous Factory

GM Workers in Colombia Hunger Strike at US Embassy to Protest Dangerous Factory

JAISAL NOOR: 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 Bogot�, Colombia, plant. Now, Frank, tell us more about why you were
there in front of the GM shareholders meeting. FRANK HAMMER: 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 Bogot�. 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 Bogot�.
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
Bogot�. 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 Bogot�,
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.

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