GM To Colombian Workers Injured On the Job: You’re On Your Own

Bruce Vail

Workers working in a plant, General Motors Plant, Baltimore, Maryland. (Glowimages)

A long-term protest by work­ers charg­ing mis­treat­ment by Gen­er­al Motors in Colom­bia received a slap in the face from the admin­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump this month when one of the protest lead­ers was denied entry into the Unit­ed States.

For­mer GM autowork­er Jorge Par­ra was prepar­ing to vis­it the Unit­ed States when the U.S. Ambas­sador to Colom­bia abrupt­ly can­celled his visa just 20 hours before his flight was sched­uled to depart, says Paige Shell-Spurl­ing, an activist with the Port­land, Ore­gon-based Cen­tral Amer­i­ca Sol­i­dar­i­ty Com­mit­tee. The can­cel­la­tion has not been offi­cial­ly explained, she says, and sup­port­ers sus­pect retal­i­a­tion for the aggres­sive protest tac­tics employed by the Colombians.

Par­ra was head­ed to the Unit­ed States to con­tin­ue his sev­en-year strug­gle to win bet­ter treat­ment for work­ers injured at the GM plant in the Colom­bian cap­i­tal of Bogo­ta. Par­ra charges that he was among sev­er­al hun­dred employ­ees who were unfair­ly dis­missed at the GM Colo­mo­tores assem­bly plant — and then denied finan­cial help in recov­er­ing from injuries sus­tained on the job.

Among the protest tac­tics are erec­tion of a tent encamp­ment in front of the embassy in Bogo­ta, a cor­po­rate pres­sure cam­paign aimed at top exec­u­tives of GM, per­sis­tent com­plaints to U.S. and Colom­bian gov­ern­ment offi­cials and inter­na­tion­al appeals for grass­roots sup­port. This month, the Port­land Sol­i­dar­i­ty Com­mit­tee con­tin­ued its long-run­ning sup­port cam­paign with a trip to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. and Bal­ti­more, assist­ed in part by a local unit of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World.

Sup­port from the Unit­ed States makes it pos­si­ble,” for protests to con­tin­ue in front the Amer­i­can Embassy in Bogo­ta, says Shell-Spurl­ing, who trans­lat­ed a phone mes­sage from one of the pro­tes­tors in Colom­bia dur­ing a Bal­ti­more meeting.

Such sup­port has enabled pub­lic protests aimed at con­fronting the multi­na­tion­al corporation’s top exec­u­tives. Par­ra attend­ed GM’s annu­al stock­hold­ers’ meet­ing in 2016, for exam­ple, to demand a response from CEO Mary T. Bar­ra. The appear­ance was fol­lowed by a cross-coun­try bicy­cle tour where activists made unan­nounced vis­its to the homes of GM board mem­bers. Pro­tes­tors were at the 2017 stock­hold­ers meet­ing as well, keep­ing up the pres­sure on com­pa­ny executives. 

Par­ra is the leader of an orga­ni­za­tion formed specif­i­cal­ly for the GM work­ers: the Asso­ci­a­tion of Injured Work­ers and Ex-Work­ers of Gen­er­al Motors Colo­mo­tores (ASOTRECOL). Said to rep­re­sent hun­dreds of work­ers when it was first formed in 2011, the group has dwin­dled over the inter­ven­ing years, Shell-Spurl­ing says, as some dis­cour­aged work­ers have giv­en up hope entire­ly, and oth­ers have accept­ed par­tial resti­tu­tion from GM. 

GM spokesman Patrick E. Mor­ris­sey told In These Times over email that All alle­ga­tions over the years have been tak­en seri­ous­ly, and GM has devot­ed sub­stan­tial and senior resources to con­duct numer­ous investigations.”

GM addressed the indi­vid­ual cas­es raised by the form GM Col­mo­tores employ­ees and offered retrain­ing, but they refused the oppor­tu­ni­ty,” Mor­ris­sey con­tin­ued, adding: GM has put in place train­ing, fund­ing, and oth­er resources so the Asotrecol mem­bers can return to pro­duc­tive work again and care for their families.”

Shell-Spurl­ing brush­es aside GM’s state­ments, charg­ing that the com­pa­ny has spent years deny­ing the prob­lem, or mak­ing insin­cere offers of par­tial resti­tu­tion. GM exer­cis­es strong polit­i­cal influ­ence in both the Unit­ed States and Colom­bia, she adds, and the gov­ern­ments of both coun­tries have gen­er­al­ly sup­port­ed GM in the strug­gle with ASOTRECOL. She cit­ed the action of U.S. Ambas­sador Kevin Whitak­er to can­cel Parra’s visa a prime exam­ple of such support.

Although there has been no con­fir­ma­tion, Paige says there is some sus­pi­cion that Parra’s visa can­cel­la­tion may have been relat­ed to a meet­ing that had been sched­uled this month with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D‑Oregon). The Port­land Sol­i­dar­i­ty Com­mit­tee had pressed for the meet­ing, Shell-Spurl­ing says, in hopes that Sen. Wyden’s atten­tion would spur GM to final­ly set­tle with all the injured workers.

The long ASOTRECOL cam­paign has been dispir­it­ing at times, but the injured work­ers take sat­is­fac­tion in the belief the Colom­bian auto work­ers cur­rent­ly employed at GM are reap­ing some ben­e­fit, Shell-Spurl­ing con­cludes. There is renewed atten­tion to safe­ty at the plant, she says, and GM plant man­agers are far less like­ly to unfair­ly dis­miss injured work­ers as they had been before.

Even so, the goal of a fair set­tle­ment for the remain­ing injured work­ers shows no signs of being met any­time soon.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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