PBI-Guatemala accompanied the historic 410-day Lunafil workers strike in 1987-88

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Peace Brigades International activist Karen Ridd tells the story of when PBI-Guatemala accompanied workers with the Lunafil Thread Factory Workers Union at a picket line shelter 24 hours a day for almost 410 days in 1987 and 1988:

A 7-day workweek with no overtime pay

On 9 June 1987 workers of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Lunafil (Lunafil Thread Factory Workers Union, or SITRALU) were given unwelcome news by management.

The Lunafil factory was located on the main highway in Amatitlan, just 15 miles from Guatemala City (capital of Guatemala).

In that factory workers spun cotton grown on Guatemalan plantations into thread. The thread was then shipped to other factories for Guatemalan workers to use in sewing garments for export, the so-called maquiladoras.

Following an upgrade of machinery, management demanded that workers work regular additional twelve-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays, with no overtime pay.

The strike begins with risk of violence against the workers

Unwilling to go from a 5-day to a 7-day work week, union members decided to go on strike. 91 workers occupied the grounds within the chain-link enclosed factory compound.

The workers believed they were making a courageous move. Recently the work force in a Guatemalan Coca-Cola factory had gone on a prolonged strike, in 1985-86. Eleven striking union members were murdered by government-backed forces called ‘death squads.’

On 21 June, in the first week of the Lunafil campaign, two union leaders were arrested while handing out leaflets and imprisoned. Pressure from local and international unions obtained their release.

Management ultimatum

On 7 July factory manager Leonel Barrios gave the workers an ultimatum. The gates to the factory were being locked. Armed guards from the Ebano Security company would be stationed inside the compound. The workers could leave whenever they wished, but once all the workers had left the compound, the factory would re-open with new workers who would be required to work seven days a week.

Most of the workers remained. Management and guards engaged in threats and intimidation. Several members of the union leadership went outside to organize, while other leaders remained with the workers inside the grounds.

Shelters built to sustain the strike action

Over the next days, the striking workers adapted to their difficult situation: they constructed temporary shelter, and when the owners cut off the supply of water, arranged for water and food to be brought to the factory and handed over the fence.

The strikers established a small cooking area and cooked enough food for the union members on the outside as well. Family members could only visit them and communicate through the fence, as if the strikers were imprisoned. The workers cooked for their families as well.

PBI accompaniment

To ensure a continued presence outside the compound, the workers built a small, black, plastic-and-wood shelter on the sidewalk. Each night union leaders on the outside would take turns sleeping in the shelter, accompanied by members of Peace Brigades International.

Peace Brigades International (PBI) had begun operating in Guatemala in 1983. PBI is an international nongovernmental organization committed to providing a nonviolent presence in places where local nonviolent activists are threatened and where internationals might serve to deter violence.

On the invitation of leaders of SITRALU, PBI provided protective accompaniment to the workers at the Lunafil factory 24 hours per day until the strike ended in July 1988.

Labour movement solidarity

Other international allies gave support: the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Labor Organizations (AFL-CIO) and individual U.S. unions, plus unions from Germany, Spain, France and Belgium.

The strike lengthens into months

As the strike lengthened into months, the number of occupiers dwindled. By November 1987 only 39 were left, but these 39 then remained locked into their factory compound, until the end of the 13-month (410 day) strike.

The lengthy strike caused significant stress on families, including, in some cases, the loss of homes. Gender roles were altered: in families where the men had been the breadwinners, women now had to work outside the home.

Needing childcare, they would pass the younger children over the fence each morning to their husbands on the ‘inside’, who cared for them during the day. Fathers cooked meals that they passed through the fence to their families in the evening.

To pass the time, and to earn some money, some of the striking men spun cotton stored in the factory into string on a spinning wheel they had made from an overturned bicycle. The men (all of the striking workers were male) then knotted the string into bags that were sold to raise much-needed money.

Shots fired, sleeping structure demolished

Workers continually faced the threat of violence. Overseen by heavily armed guards, the workers also lived with the memories of the previous Coca-Cola workers’ deaths. Some of the Coca-Cola workers had been tortured to death.

On several occasions, shots were fired into the compound from vehicles passing on the highway. In May 1988 the makeshift sleeping structure outside the fence was attacked and demolished. Leaders received death threats.

Blockades tried to keep the cotton in the factory

On at least three occasions, semi-trailers arrived at the gates with the intention of entering the factory and taking out the remaining cotton still in storage. Responding rapidly to the situation, union leaders on the outside contacted local media and contacted family members who lived nearby.

Women and children sat on the road outside the fence, blocking the trucks, while the strikers sat inside the chain link gate. On at least two occasions, the combined pressure of the people seated in front of the vehicles, the presence of media, and the presence of international observers, served to deter the truckers from entering the compound.

On a third occasion, however, management arranged for police to be present, and with their intimidation the cotton was removed.

Strike ends with a significant, but partial, win

After more than a year of occupation an accord was reached. Management agreed to reinstate the 24 union workers still occupying the plant and respect their contract.

However, when the plant reopened, additional workers were hired under different conditions, including membership in the Solidarista association rather than the union.

These new workers were given a wage increase along with other benefits such as a cafeteria and a consumer cooperative that sold electrical appliances and other goods.

Closed circuit TV cameras keep a close eye on worker interactions on the factory floor. New workers that attend union functions have reportedly been fired; the union has not signed up any new members in the two years since the factory reopened.

Nevertheless, the union workers retained their union and succeeded in their refusal to work a seven-day week without overtime pay.

Note: The strike itself was settled with an agreement signed on July 20, 1988. It was not, however, until October 3 that the returning strikers went back to work. In the period between July 20 and October 3, the union still had to pressure management to completely fulfill the agreement they had signed.

The story of the Lunafil strike action is also told in detail by Peter Hogness at One More Hole in the Wall: The Lunafil Strikers in Guatemala.

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