Working In These Times
In Solidarity, Labor Steps Up Pressure on Honduran Junta
Tomorrow marks the one-month anniversary of when soldiers raided the home of Mel Zelaya, the democratically elected president of Honduras, and forced the pajama-clad leader into exile in Costa Rica.
The coup was swiftly denounced by the international community, including the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS). The U.S. is trying to broker some kind of compromise between Zelaya and the coup leaders, but two rounds of negotiations have already broken down. More meetings are scheduled with Sec of State Hillary Clinton in Washington tomorrow.
In the meantime, Zelaya is camped out on the Nicaragua-Honduras border after defying the junta by making a symbolic 30-minute return to Honduras over the weekend.
From the very beginning, unions have been at the forefront of the battle to restore Zelaya to power. The Honduran workforce is heavily organized and Honduran labor has played a pivotal role in opposing the coup at home.
Upon Zelaya’s ouster, Honduras’s three largest public sector unions called a general strike. A union official estimated that 100,000 workers walked off the job.
Latin American unions joined the fight. On July 3, the Global Union Federation organized a protest in Nicaragua near the Honduran border which was attended by unions members from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
On the same day, members of unions affiliated with the London-based International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) formed a symbolic ring around Honduras with simultaneous demonstrations on all three of the country’s international borders.
The American labor movement also moved quickly to denounce the coup. The AFL-CIO condemned the coup and successfully lobbied the Organization of American States and the U.S. government not to recognize the new regime.
Individual unions also weighed in. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) issued a statement condemning the coup and expressing concern for the safety of trade union leaders in Honduras.
Dan Kovalik, the associate general counsel of the United Steel Workers, traveled to Honduras earlier this month on a fact-finding mission and met with union leaders, human rights advocates and other community activists. His delegation also helped block the Pan-American Highway outside of the capital of Tegucigalpa as part of an anti-coup protest.
Labor leaders agree that that the outcome of this crisis has implications beyond Honduras’ borders. Zelaya is a moderate left-wing leader who is more sympathetic to labor than most Honduran presidents have been. Moreover, if this military coup is allowed to prevail, other left-wing leaders of Latin American countries might find themselves vulnerable to coups by conservative elites.
“I think that as time has gone on the unions in the U.S. in general, and the Steelworkers in particular, have really realized how much we are linked to unions and the fate of workers in other countries, particularly in Latin America,” Kovalik told a radio interviewer.
As the crisis drags on and Zelaya remains in exile, some labor organizations are trying to step up the pressure on the regime. On July 17, the ITF called on its 656 affiliated unions to oppose the coup by “focusing protests on the Honduran merchant fleet.” The press release didn’t say what kind of protests the ITF had in mind, however. ITF spokesman Sam Dawson stressed in an email yesterday that ITF wants member unions to stay within the law. The federation is not publicly calling for a general boycott.
There are many historical precedents of longshore workers using strikes to make political points, but ITF isn’t ready to go that far.
We won’t know the effects of the ITF edict until some ITF-affiliated unions are called upon to unload Honduran ships. That hasn’t happened since ITF issued the statement.
Dawson said that ITF is monitoring the movements of Honduran ships but that, so far, there has been “minimal contact” between them and members of ITF-affiliated unions.
If member unions take action, their protests could have far-reaching effects. Ship owners from around the world fly the Honduran flag as a “flag of convenience,” meaning that they use Honduras as a cheap place to register their ships even though they don’t hire Honduran crews or do business with Honduran firms. So, protests targeting the Honduran fleet could have a global impact. Honduras is also the largest producer of textiles in Latin America and a major exporter of coffee. The United States is its number one customer.
“The military takeover of a democratically elected president and the removal of union workers from their jobs for organizing peaceful demonstrations in support of president Zelaya are not acceptable,” McEllrath wrote. However, so far, there is no indication that McEllrath is prepared to back up these sentiments with a call for action against the Honduran merchant fleet.
Since the coup, international labor groups have gradually intensified the pressure on the regime. Remember that negotiations are still ongoing to resolve the crisis. So, unions may be holding back to see whether the process will work. It remains to be seen how far they are prepared to go in solidarity with the workers of Honduras.