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Detroit and Colombia: Our Struggles Are Tied Together

Autoworkers in both countries face two-tier or multi-tier pay scales and anti-labor legislation like the ‘right to work’ bill.

Jorge Parra stands behind the Renaissance Center in Detroit, on a spot marking Colombia. (Photo: Martha Quezada Hernández)

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Detroit, meet Jorge Parra.

Jorge is an autoworker from Colombia. When he came to Detroit last August he was in the middle of his second hunger strike. When you read this he will be in the fourth week of his third. His lips are sewn shut.

The fired General Motors worker “feels very appreciative of Detroit” and hopes one day soon to break bread with his Detroit autoworker counterpart and fellow hunger striker Melvin Thompson. Parra will end his fast as soon as GM executives here agree to meet with him.

You wouldn’t think that would be so hard. But during his few months in the United States Parra has put GM’s human rights violations in Colombia in the public spotlight.

On Oct. 31, General Motors reported third quarter earnings of $1.48 billion. A big chunk of the take — $114 million — came out of South America. GM’s most profitable plant in the continent is its Colmotores plant in Bogota, Colombia.

While year-end results won’t be known until next year, some Colmotores workers are not likely to share in the company’s success. Unless there is a radical change they will still be suffering under conditions autoworkers here have not experienced for decades. On top of mandatory 10-12 hour shifts, six days a week, they perform 45 minutes of unpaid “prep time.” They work at breakneck speeds or perform backbreaking lifting — such as carrying transmissions on their backs and handling weld guns weighing 400-600 pounds. The theme song to “Bridge Over the River Kwai” is blared constantly.

If the pattern described by Parra continues, in a few years they will develop muscular-skeletal and/or repetitive motion-related conditions and be unable to work. Then GM will fire them. They will have no workers compensation or any source of income.

That’s what happened to Parra and several hundred of his former co-workers. For over 500 days the Association of Injured workers and Ex-workers of GM Colmotores (Asotrecol), of which Parra is president, has been seeking justice. To them justice means not having to go hungry because they were hurt making profit for the corporation. Justice means getting the medical treatments and surgeries they need so they can work again. More than anything, justice simply means having a job. That’s why, on Aug. 1, 2011, 68 fired Colmotores workers created a tent community outside the U.S. embassy. Despite the rigors of the camp, some are still there, praying the U.S. government — which bailed out GM and owns 26 percent of the company — will use its leverage to get GM to rehire the injured workers and retrain them on jobs they can perform with their conditions.

Like Parra, these men are on their third hunger strike. They have lost their homes or are in foreclosure. The former GM workers — who would have an adequate income from workers compensation if their injuries occurred here — watch their children go hungry. When they ended their second hunger strike they had nothing to eat.

Fortunately, the workers are not fighting alone. They have won the hearts of Detroit autoworkers, faith leaders around the country, Parra’s host community of Southwest Detroit and celebrities like Noam Chomsky and Martin Sheen. On Dec. 8, Jorge’s 37th birthday, the autoworker shared his story with and won a pledge of support from actor and activist Danny Glover.

When Melvin Thompson, a line worker at Chrysler Warren Stamping and former president of UAW Local 140, heard Jorge’s story, he made a major decision. “I started the hunger strike with Jorge on Nov. 20,” Melvin explained. “The reason I did was two reasons: One, just a human reason, that Jorge is here by himself and needed a comrade that was going through what he was going through. The other is that we need to know and workers in Colombia need to know that we’re willing to go through some things because our struggles are tied together.”

Among the similarities faced by autoworkers in both countries are two-tier or multi-tier pay scales and anti-labor legislation such as the “right to work” bill. Parra says a similar bill was passed in his country 20 years ago. “There it was a policy laboratory,” he told this writer.

Melvin and Jorge would like to end their strike and share a meal at the kitchen table. They will lift their hunger strike when GM comes to the negotiating table.

The fired GM workers do not want to die.

While executives toast GM’s “success” in swanky boardrooms overlooking the Detroit River, Jorge Alberto Parra Andrade, a “simple Colombian worker,” is only a phone call away.

Melvin Thompson maintained his solidarity hunger strike for 23 days, ending it December 13. He is building solidarity with the Colombian autoworkers inside his plant. The Asotrecol members in Bogota have resumed eating but are continuing the occupation outside the U.S. embassy, which is in its 17th month. Jorge Parra is still in Detroit and in the sixth week of his hunger strike—which he plans to continue until GM agrees to negotiate with Asotrecol.

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