This piece was originally published at Labor Notes.
After more than a year at the doorstep of the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, the struggle of Colombian GM workers came to the company’s own doorstep Wednesday. Student, community, and labor groups demonstrated outside corporate headquarters in Detroit, as other activists protested around the country.
Over the last two weeks seven disabled former General Motors workers in Bogotá have sewed their lips closed to begin a hunger strike that they say will continue until GM responds to their demand for assistance, or until they die.
They escalated their protest after a year of peaceful vigil outside the embassy, saying they were victimized by a corporation not only headquartered in the U.S. but still owned to a significant degree by the government.
The workers are protesting a set-up that left them not only disabled but unemployed, coerced or deceived into “voluntarily” giving up their rights under Colombian law, and left without compensation, retraining, or medical benefits. By controlling workers’ medical treatment and records, GM knew who got hurt and how to alter the record to make it appear their injuries didn’t occur inside the plant.
The disabled workers organized to defend their rights, and in retaliation, GM Colombia fired the association’s president, Jorge Parra.
U.S. activists brought their protest Wednesday to the 10,000 square foot mansion of GM’s CEO in McLean, Virginia, as more than 200 people around North America undertook solidarity fasts.
In several states, activists delivered letters to GM dealers asking them to share with headquarters their concerns over the black-eye the brand is receiving.
About 30 demonstrators from a variety of Detroit-area unions and community groups converged outside GM headquarters, displaying large photos of the hunger strikers’ sewed lips.
“People were sympathetic, and moved—and just shocked,” said Diana Sierra, an officer of the University of Michigan Graduate Employees Organization who helped organized the protest.
Rallies spread the message in several states, starting last Saturday in Arlington, Texas, where a vigil and fast took place outside the GM assembly plant. A flash-mob in Portland, Oregon, gathered at noon yesterday in the “city’s living room,” Pioneer Courthouse Square, singing and chanting for justice.
The actions followed a failed mediation in Colombia last week. The GM representative walked out on talks with a commission established under agreement with the International Labor Organization. No further meetings are scheduled—unless GM receives more pressure.
Meanwhile a delegation of labor experts sent to Colombia in July by Witness for Peace, a faith-based peace and justice group, concluded its report. The group met with unions and community groups and discovered harsh realities still exist for Colombian workers on the ground now that last year’s free trade agreement with the U.S. has been implemented.
Despite promises of investment and training for state officials to combat the notorious violence and union-busting aimed at Colombia’s labor movement, the delegation concluded that “the systemic failure to prosecute labor violations indicates that the Labor Action Plan has not been implemented in full.”
The report also revealed that employers are pursuing new forms of subcontracting and short-term contracts to ensure a high turnover of workers and maintain low wages, poor working conditions, meager benefits, and the inability to accumulate seniority. The report singled out GM for preventing independent unionization in its plant, fomenting conflict that has led to the illegal firings the hunger strikers are protesting.
Sierra said North American activists are planning actions at Colombian consulates in Chicago and New York, as well as more visits to dealerships. She said several unions, including the UAW, have asked GM headquarters to intervene.
The hunger strikers are taking notice: Sierra received word from Parra today, saying he is weakening but feels inspired and moved by the solidarity.
The company is paying attention, too. GM’s Colombian unit issued a statement claiming all of the fired workers’ cases have adhered to proper procedures. The hunger strikers and their supporters pointed out that the cases rely on false documents, and said that the company’s foot-dragging demonstrates its “systematic negligence of the workers’ health and well-being.”
This piece was originally published at Labor Notes.
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