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Labor Struggle Lives in El Salvador

by The Project / Javier Armas (projectcollective [at]
Labor Struggle Lives in El Salvador
Javier Armas
In the book Lies my Teacher Told Me it was explained that Thanksgiving was really a day of murder where the English pilgrims had two bottles of wine, one for the English and the other secretly laced with cyanide for the Native Americans. They toasted their unity while the indigenous drank to their death. Such a historical event is representative of the legacy of Western expansionism. It is painted with democracy and civilization, but composed of racism and exploitation. Latin American history is often seen as a violent dance between democracy and dictatorship, overshadowed by a genocide that still has a presence in the Mestizo race, unlike the US where genocide has become far more of a historical event.

In 2005, such a legacy arose from the past to haunt a group of workers in El Salvador. On Thanksgiving in 2005, 550 workers, mainly women, found themselves illegally fired by Evergreen company, which is based here in California, so they could move their machinery to Nicaragua and Honduras where the minimum wage is significantly lower. Evergreen produces clothes for Columbia sportswear, and operated in a Zona Franca, a zone that is able to produce tax-free. It is located in a working class city called Soyapango, and the zone is surrounded by concrete walls with barbwire fences and security guards with shotguns and 80’s style sun-glasses. No one is allowed in besides the owners, workers, and the neighborhood ice-cream man, which creates a climate of hostility and control to the workers. The owners also consciously hired women, who were between the ages of 18 and 40. Most of them were mothers, often single and -according to one report- their education averages around that of a middle school level. The idea is not new, but managers thought that having a female work force would make it far easier to control than one of men. The multiple mechanisms of social, political and economic control are profound when one looks at this situation in both its micro and macro framework.

But on that Thanksgiving of 2005, the workers did not die from contemporary cyanide. When the workers discovered that the machinery was being secretly moved out, a small group, without being part of a union or having any experience in organizing, started visiting each other’s houses and discussing what they were anticipating. They created a secret committee that wanted to organize all of the workers and prepare for the coming closure. When October 25th hit, hundreds of workers protested their illegal firing and announced that they were going to be permanently stationed in front of the factory until they received severance pay for their illegal firings, their Christmas bonuses, their social security and other benefits, and were not going to leave until they were paid in full. Under article 58 of Salvadoran labor laws, when one is fired without “just cause” they are entitled to one month pay for every year they worked there. With these factors included, the 550 workers were battling Evergreen for a half-million dollars in pay. The rage was not a Luddite like impulse against the machines, but over their control. It was the piece of value that the workers made sure could not leave the factory until the half-million dollars in severance pay was paid in full. During December, near Christmas, these workers were still stationed day and night, 24-7, in front of the factory numbering anywhere from 50 to several hundreds. When decisions were to be made, hundreds would come together and democratically vote on the particularities of their strategy, even with evidence that many of the workers had been bought off by the employers to manipulate and defeat their struggle.

In the last couple of weeks, they have raised $135,000 by selling accessories and clothing they sewed with leftover material from Columbia exports. This money was used for their December wages and their Christmas bonuses, but they have chosen to remain stationed in front of the factory until they force the managers to sell the machinery so that they achieve their full victory: receiving their severance pay and vacation dues, which no one had received for several years of work.

Globalization is often called the end of history, where the economic structure is internationalized and nation-states bow down to its process. Employers, government officials, and even unions often refer to this contemporary phenomenon as inevitable and unchangeable. With a decline of manufacturing jobs in the US, and the increase of the service sector, the globalization myth has haunted the conditions people live under in the US. Indeed, there has been a marked increase in the numbers of working poor due to the steady decline in real wages since 1973. In the Evergreen case, when machinery was ready to be moved, the owners used the same myth to justify their action. But the Salvadoran workers fought and struggled against great odds. History is full of events where ordinary people struggle against the “inevitable” and the “impossible”, but right now in tiny El Salvador we have a living example of the triumphs that can be achieved when workers demand their rights. Organizing in this spirit is one of the elements people need in the United States to make social gains against the employer and the Republican offensive. The Evergreen struggle demonstrates that the political elements that activists are looking for for organizing are not always found in academia or in first-world institutions. The global south has far more to teach the world than what is normally assumed by (North) Americans.
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