Skit protests oppression of banana workers in Guatemala

About a hundred union supporters briefly occupied a Portland Safeway supermarket Jan. 23 to call attention to terror faced by a group of unionized banana workers in Guatemala. Dressed in yellow and brandishing large cardboard signs painted to look like bananas, protesters enacted a short skit before a small audience of shoppers in the checkout line at the 1100 NE Broadway store, then held a demonstration outside at both entrances.

Protesters want Safeway to pull Fresh Del Monte Produce bananas from its produce bins for two weeks to show support for the Guatemalan workers.

Guatemala's banana workers union is the country's oldest and most powerful union; union banana workers make $10 a day and have company-provided housing, health care, and education for their children. But now it appears an attempt to bust the union is under way.

As part of a wave of shutdowns and cost-cutting measures brought on by plummeting prices, 900 unionized banana workers at a Fresh Del Monte Produce subsidiary in Morales, Guatemala, were fired Sept. 27 in violation of their collective bargaining agreement. Then, on Oct. 13 a group of 200 armed men (reportedly including the company security chief and engineer) invaded the union hall.

Taking union leaders hostage, they drove to the home of the union general secretary, who was beaten there in front of his family. For over eight hours, five executive committee members and over 20 other union members were held. Union leaders were forced at gunpoint to resign and to announce on a local radio station that a walkout planned to begin the next day was cancelled. Before releasing their captives, the armed men said they'd be murdered if they didn't leave town. The union leaders and their families fled to Guatemala City, where they've been under police protection ever since.

The U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project is calling on activists to appeal to stores to pull Del Monte bananas off the shelves for two weeks in protest. Portland's Cross-Border Labor Organizing Coalition (CBLOC) was the first group to organize such a demonstration.

CBLOC member Ezra Gorman said he talked to a Safeway produce manager at the Northeast Broadway Safeway, who referred him to consumer relations person Bridget Flanagan at the Safeway district office. Flanagan said Safeway doesn't do consumer boycotts and recommended the activists take their message to the consumers, Gorman reported. "We followed their advice," he said.

Store managers called the police, and half a dozen squad cars arrived as the demonstrators continued to protest peacefully.

Guatemalan police have yet to bring any of the perpetrators to justice.

February 4, 2000 issue

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