When asked how he felt, a month into his hunger strike, former Colombian General Motors worker Jorge Parra answered bluntly: “Terrible. But I feel the need to keep struggling.”
On November 20, Parra stopped eating and sewed his lips shut in protest of failed negotiations between General Motors and his organization, ASOTRECOL (the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores). The current hunger strike is Parra’s third in a two-year campaign to secure justice for workers at a GM subsidiary’s plant in Bogotá who were fired after suffering debilitating injuries on the job.
Now at GM’s corporate headquarters in Detroit, he hopes that escalating solidarity protests by faith leaders, students and U.S. autoworkers will force a settlement. Tomorrow, supporters plan to hold informational pickets at GM dealerships across Michigan and deliver letters asking company executives to return to negotiations with the workers’ group. Regardless of the outcome, Parra is prepared to remain in Detroit, and continue fasting until “the final consequences.”
“It’s the same for me, whether I die here or in Colombia,” he told In These Times through an interpreter this week. “Either way, my family is going through the same situation. I hope that our struggle can set a precedent.”
The precedent that ASOTRECOL is striving to set concerns the treatment of injured workers, of whom the organization says there are at least 200 in the non-union Bogotá plant. Though Colombian law protects disabled workers from dismissal, Parra asserts that in practice, there is little recourse for those who are used up and then thrown away in the course of a hastening production process. The inspector assigned to GM Colmotores has been sanctioned by the Colombian Ministry of Labor for using falsified documents to approve the firings, but the affected workers have not been reinstated.
Parra began working as a welder at the Bogotá plant in 2004. Operating heavy machinery left him with a herneated disc in his spine, a condition that he notes is common — along with elbow and shoulder injuries, knee problems, and carpal tunnel syndrome — as work in the plant proceeds at a breakneck pace. He continued working until, one day, he could no longer move and was taken to the emergency room. Parra was fired as he recovered from surgery, and says he still has the letter of dismissal proving the company’s knowledge of his injury.
ASOTRECOL formed when workers began documenting these injuries, and in May 2011 established an encampment outside the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. ASOTRECOL has argued that the U.S. government should intervene both because of its controlling stake in GM (though the Treasury Department announced this week that it would be selling the majority of its G.M. shares within 15 months), as well as its recent approval of a bilateral free trade agreement with Colombia, despite persistent labor abuses that include the highest murder rate of trade unionists anywhere in the world.
After a year of camping outside the embassy, a group of ex-workers sewed their lips shut and announced that they would stop eating until GM responded to their demands for retraining and reintegration into the workforce. The group was hopeful for a resolution when a mediation process was opened under the auspices of the U.S. government’s Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. But during four days of negotiations, Parra says that GM refused to discuss anything outside of financial compensation. If the company were to recognize the injuries as occupational and take responsibility for medical treatment, he notes, “they know it would open the door for more workers to reclaim their rights.”
While the company offered up to $30,000 per worker, Parra says that spinal surgeries and ongoing care can cost $50,000 without medical insurance. GM representative Katie McBride told the International Business Times in September that the company “made a number of very generous offers to Asotrecol, some of them on par with similar offers we have made in the U.S.”
Now Parra, who travelled to Detroit in September, is perservering alone. He says that as GM has delayed longer, ASOTRECOL has waned in size from 68 workers to just 12.
A renewed hunger strike in late September was halted at the request of United Auto Workers President Bob King, who was reportedly discussing the matter with GM CEO Dan Akerson. But when Parra learned from King that no resolution was forthcoming, he resumed the strike, which has now reached its 30th day.
During a press conference this morning in support of Parra, Detroit-area faith leaders urged greater involvement from labor leaders. “This is actually a situation which could be readily resolved, but it would imply an international commitment to workers and to justice that the corporation, and for that matter the unions, seem unprepared to make,” said Detroit Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellerman.
ASOTRECOL’s campaign has found support from auto workers such as former UAW Local 140 president Melvin Thompson, who on November 20 began his own water-only hunger strike in solidarity with Parra. Thompson has said that he will continue with a liquids-only diet until GM agrees to a settlement.
Pressure on GM has also been maintained through the support of a network of students, labor activists and Latin American solidarity organizations. On November 28, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented an annual award for “corporate excellence” for which GM was nominated, demonstrators gathered outside of both the State Department and GM headquarters to belie the praise bestowed on GM and other nominees for commitment to corporate social responsibility, innovation, exemplary practices, and democratic values.” Candlelight vigils have also been held at the home of GM Vice President Cathy Clegg, and organizers say they are planning a series of major actions to coincide with the Detroit Auto Show in January.
Since arriving in Michigan, Parra has also been attending demonstrations against the state’s right-to-work legislation, which passed last week. He and his supporters point to intensifying attacks on workers in the U.S. as all the more reason to strengthen global ties within the industry. Exploitative labor practices pioneered in the developing world are often exported back to the U.S., he says, citing the controversial two-tier wage system introduced by U.S. automakers during the financial crisis. This system was previously implemented by GM in Colombia, and according to ASOTRECOL has meant that many workers are injured and fired before they reach the higher pay rate.
“Similar legislation [as right-to-work] was passed in Colombia 20 years ago, and the struggle of ASOTRECOL is evidence of its consequences,” says Diana Sierra, a native of Colombia and officer of the University of Michigan Graduate Employees Organization who has been helping to coordinate the demonstrations. “It’s absolutely necessary that the labor movement in this country recognize that attacks against workers are taking place on a global scale, and that our struggles are connected.”
Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.