Colombia: injured GM workers resume hunger strike

On Nov. 20 Jorge Parra, a former employee of GM Colmotores, the Colombian subsidiary of the Detroit-based General Motors Company (GM), resumed a liquids-only hunger strike that he and 11 other former employees started last summer to pressure the company to reinstate them and compensate them for work-related injuries. They had suspended the fast on Aug. 24 after General Motors agreed to enter mediation, but they decided to go back on strike when management appeared unwilling to meet their demands. The former workers say Colmotores fired them because they developed disabilities due to injuries on the job, repetitive stress injuries or other work-related illnesses.

Parra, the president of the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of Colmotores (Asotrecol), was in the US to attend the annual protest at Fort Benning, Georgia against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), Nov. 16-18. United Auto Workers (UAW) president Bob King, who was also at the protest, told Parra that the mediation was going nowhere, leading to the decision to resume the strike. Melvin Thompson, a Detroit autoworker and former president of UAW Local 140, went on a water-only hunger strike as a statement of solidarity with the Colmotores workers, and eight Colombian workers joined the hunger strike at the encampment they’ve maintained in front of the US embassy in Bogotá since Aug. 1, 2011. Parra remained in the US, demanding a meeting with top GM executives.

About 50 UAW members and other supporters protested at GM headquarters in Detroit on Nov. 29, chanting “down with exploitation, up with mediation!” A small group also demonstrated outside the US State Department in Washington, DC, where Hillary Clinton was presenting the department’s annual Award for Corporate Excellence. Although GM didn’t win, it was selected to be one of the 11 finalists. (As a result of a 2009 bailout, the US government is GM’s largest shareholder.) On Dec. 7 more than a dozen protesters held a candlelight vigil outside the Rochester, Michigan home of GM vice president Cathy Clegg, the company official in charge of labor relations.

Former UAW local 909 president Frank Hammer noted in an interview with The Real News Network that the strong solidarity by US autoworkers was partly a result of the pressure unionists in Michigan are under as rightwing forces push for the state legislature to pass an anti-labor “right-to-work” law. “I think that here in Michigan, our union rights are on the chopping block,” Hammer said. “[I]f General Motors had its way, we would look a lot more like Colombia.”

Brazilian unionists have also expressed solidarity. “We know that not only in Brazil are we being attacked by GM’s plans,” Herbert Claros da Silva, vice president of the metalworkers union in San José dos Campos in Brazil, wrote in a letter to US activists. “We also know that in Colombia, Mexico, France and Germany, [GM wants] to end the jobs and workers’ rights.” (Workday Minnesota, Dec. 3, from Labor Notes; The Oakland Press, Pontiac, Michigan, Dec. 7; TRNN, Dec. 9)

Supporters of the Colmotores workers have started an online petition calling on GM chair and GEO Dan Akerson, GM South America president Jaime Ardila, US ambassador to Colombia Peter McKinley, Colombia labor minister Rafael Pardo Rueda, and US labor secretary Hilda Solis to reach an agreement that will end the strike. The petition is at:

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 9.