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The fight for union autonomy and workers’ rights in Latin America

Coast Longshore Division supports dockworkers and their unions

Published in the Coast Longshore Division Newsletter, Winter 2010 issue.

Americas globeIn the past year, the Coast Committee has become increasingly involved in regional solidarity through direct support of dockworkers in Latin America. Latin American dockworkers are seeing the social contracts that they have with their governments systematically dismantled as external forces, buoyed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, seek to eliminate unions while reestablishing foreign corporations at the points of production.

The two chief examples of this increased involvement are Costa Rica and Peru. What is happening to dockworkers in Costa Rica and Peru provides a glimpse into the struggle that dockworkers are facing across Latin America: a corporate drive to extract profits at any cost. This drive is backed by the full support of the United States government and led by some of the same companies who are parties to our own PCL&CA, including SSA, Maersk, Evergreen, COSCO, and MOL.

In this environment, the Coast Committee, supported by the Coast Longshore Division Caucus, has stepped in to provide whatever support it can for struggling dockworkers in Latin America. The Coast Committee has stepped in because it is the right thing to do and because what is happening in Latin America is too close to home to leave unchecked. Left unchecked, the United States government and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) member companies involved will feel increasingly emboldened to take us on. Even as of this writing, Del Monte is attacking the International Longshoremen’s Association on the East Coast in Philadelphia. Del Monte moves its fruit to Philadelphia from Costa Rica’s Ports of Limón and Moín.

Coast Committee intervenes after Costa Rican dockworker union leaders ousted

Police blocking SINTRAJAP union hall in Limon, Costa Rica

About 60 police officers broke into the SINTRAJAP dockworker union hall and occupied it in May 2010.

In March 2010, the Coast Committee began its efforts to aid SINTRAJAP, the dockworkers union in the Ports of Limón and Moín. The Caribbean Coast Port of Limón, which is approximately two miles from the Port of Moín, is the second largest port in Central America through which 80 percent of Costa Rica’s commerce passes daily.

At the point that the Coast Committee got involved, the democratically elected leadership of SINTRAJAP had been illegally ousted and replaced by a government-backed employer-run board of union directors, the union’s bank accounts would soon be frozen and the ports militarized with police occupying the union’s offices. An illegal $137 dollar buyout of the union was on the verge of being signed by the Costa Rican government and the sham board of union directors — all in the run up to the implementation of a “port reform” effort funded by a $72.5 million loan from the World Bank.

The Coast Committee’s efforts to aid SINTRAJAP include sending two delegations to Costa Rica, sponsoring a delegation of Costa Rican dockworkers to speak at the April 2010 Coast Longshore Division Caucus, a letter-writing campaign, with recipients such as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the placement of advertisements in Costa Rican newspapers expressing support for the dockworkers of SINTRAJAP.

The Coast Committee also filed a public submission to the Department of Labor (DOL) under the Dominican Republic – Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) concerning the failure of the Costa Rican government to effectively enforce its labor laws under the International Labour Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This was only the second public submission filed against a party to DR-CAFTA in the history of the free trade agreement, which was implemented in 2006 and ratified in Costa Rica with substantial public opposition in late 2007.

Shortly after the Coast Longshore Division’s public submission to the DOL, the Constitutional Court of Costa Rica made an historic ruling to throw out the illegal, government-backed, employer-run board of union directors and void all agreements, including the multi-million dollar buyout, that were effectuated by the Costa Rican government and the sham board of union directors.

Today, the democratically elected leadership of SINTRAJAP has been restored but faces tough odds in the continued struggle for union autonomy.

Peruvian dockworkers seek help from the Coast Longshore Division

Peruvian longshore workers have protested the abusive treatment at the hands of terminal operator DP World.

In June 2010, the Coast Committee was approached by a pro-labor Peruvian Congressman seeking support for SUTRAMPORPC, the dockworkers union in the Port of Callao, Peru. The Port of Callao is South America’s most productive Pacific Coast port. For some time now, SUTRAMPORPC has been embroiled in a struggle with DP World, a major terminal operator and foreign concessioner. DP World continues to refuse, with little resistance from the Peruvian government, to deal with SUTAMPORPC, leaving dockworkers completely unprotected.

In support of SUTRAMPORPC, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath wrote a letter to Peru’s president expressing concern over the Peruvian government’s failure to demand that DP World comply with the fundamental labor rights contained in the ILO Declaration and requesting that the government take action to ensure DP World’s compliance.

The Coast Committee has also been working directly with SUTRAMPORPC, including sponsoring the union’s General Secretary to attend a Global Terminal Network seminar in Long Beach to tell the union’s story. Unfortunately, the General Secretary of SUTRAMPORPC was denied entrance to the United States by the United States government based on the dubious claim that he had insufficient ties to obligate his return to his country after the 4-day seminar.

Costa Rican police broke into the union hall, destroying doors, windows and union records.

Costa Rican police broke into the union hall, destroying doors, windows and union records.

Our efforts in Costa Rica and Peru come at a time when China’s influence in Latin America is growing as never before, setting the stage for a struggle between China and the United States. China is currently seeking increased trade and diplomatic ties with the region. In light of China’s increased interest in Latin America, the Obama Administration is making moves to reinvigorate its own hemispheric interests so that increased competition from China will not dilute United States influence in the region — a region that is rich in natural resources and developing markets for manufactured goods.

Powerful forces at work

In an environment in which powerful governments are competing for regional dominance, our support for dockworkers requires that we face off with powerful entities including foreign governments, multinational corporations, and the United States government itself, whose primary interest is maintaining the status quo of United States domination in the region, even at the expense of workers and democratic unions.

Of course, the United States government is surrounded by organizations whose chief objective is to carry out its foreign policy goals. Two such organizations are the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The NED is a nonprofit organization, and USAID is a subdivision of the U.S. State Department. Both of these organizations promote a type of top-down, elite democracy that bears little resemblance to the kind of democracy that we are accustomed to here in the United States.

What’s worse, the NED and USAID’s effort to spread “democracy” extend to the workplace, and these efforts are largely implemented by the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO, which receives approximately 96% of its funding from the United States government.

It is well documented that United States foreign policy objectives that undermine democracy and labor rights worldwide have been carried out by the largest organization representing U.S. workers and thus carried out in our name. The AFL-CIO has rejected numerous calls for reform of its foreign policy as well as calls for the termination of its collaboration with the NED and the USAID.

Coast Longshore Division to continue supporting Latin American dockworkers in their struggle for union autonomy and workers’ rights

The Coast Committee believes that Latin Americans have the fundamental right to promote and defend whatever form of political ideology and institutions that they choose. The influence in Latin America should be Latin American — not influence exported to the region from either China or the United States. It is in our best interest to forge neutral and non-ideological ties with our fellow dockworkers in Latin America as our worlds are increasingly interconnected and shaped by the same forces.

Just look at Del Monte or DOLE, for example, two companies that are increasingly moving their work to cheaper-labor terminals outside of the United States where they can bust unions and hire scab labor with impunity. This race to the bottom can only be stopped by mounting a region-wide, grassroots-based response aimed directly at our common cargo vessels and their owners.

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