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Raising the Flag for Union Rights in Guatemala

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Issue: 70 Section: Labour Geography: Latin America Guatemala Topics: human rights, worker strike, unions

July 1, 2010

Raising the Flag for Union Rights in Guatemala

Bottle distributors trying to unionize face 2-year strike, 2 assassinations

by Tracy Glynn

SITRAPETEN's camp outside the National Palace in Guatemala City in May 2010. Photo: Tracy Glynn

GUATEMALA CITY—Guatemalan bottle distributors fired for trying to organize a union are in their second year of protest, camped out in a tent outside Guatemala's National Palace.

According to Edwin Alvarez Guevara, Secretary General of the Peten Distributors Union (SITRAPETEN), Agua Pura Salvavidas employees wanted fair working conditions so they decided to organize a union in 2007. In response, their employer used classic union-busting tactics: the company temporarily closed the factory, declared bankruptcy, then opened new subsidiary companies.

Thirteen bottle distributor workers filed a union application with the Department of Labour in February 2007. That same day, the Department of Labour notified the company, which immediately fired the 13 workers.

Three days later, the remaining workers decided to strike. Later that day, at about 6:00 pm, the company said they would re-hire the workers. The company then sued the 13 workers for Q400,000 (approximately CAD$52,100) in lost revenue from the one-day strike.

The workers tried six more times to unionize. "We contacted the Minister of Labour to find out the status of our last union application and we were told that the Department meant to tell us that our union application was successful but they said it did not matter now because the company no longer exists," said Alvarez. "They are not supposed to fire workers during a union application but that is what they did. They just changed the name of the company to avoid having to deal with a union."

Alvarez worked as a bottle distributor for Agua Pura Salvavidas for 13 years. He worked an average of 14-15 hours a day in order to meet the quota set by the company. Salvavidas delivery workers are paid on commission. Workers are not paid overtime for double and triple shifts, which occur when the workers are not able to meet their quota.

In February 2009, a judge ruled that the workers be reinstated but an appeal overturned that decision. The workers have taken their case to the Supreme Court of Justice and are currently waiting for its decision. They are worried the outcome will not be in their favour since one of the judges on the Supreme Court is a well-known legal counsel for the country's business elite. The workers have vowed to take their case to the Inter-American Court if they cannot get justice in Guatemala.

SITRAPETEN initially protested the firing of workers by setting up a camp in front of the Salvavidas plant in Guatemala City for four months. Forty-one workers took shifts living under the tent. The workers demanded their reinstatement, a raise in commission, and a just and realistic daily bottle distribution quota.

Because of constant harassment, they moved their tent to the front of the Guatemalan National Palace, where they have been for the past two years. They got a permit to be there but according to Alvarez, Guatemala does not want them outside the National Palace because they are a constant reminder that the State does not protect workers.

Alvarez says the strike is not just about quotas, it is about job security, worker health and safety, and the right to organize a union. SITRAPETEN, whose members are currently under human rights accompaniment, points to two assassinations of their members and numerous death threats from company supervisors and thugs. Of the 638 Agua Pura Salvavidas workers in Guatemala, 114 workers signed up to unionize but many have dropped out due to either fear of the consequences—including assassination—or the company coercing workers to accept severance packages.

The workers are up against the largest purified water distributor in the country, Agua Pura Salvavidas, owned by the powerful Castillo Brothers Corporation. The company has a monopoly over the country's entertainment and food and beverage industries, including the Gallo Brewery.

On December 10—International Human Rights Day—SITRAPETEN's camps were violently cleared for the filming of Mexico's version of "American Idol."

"It is ironic that while Canada's Governor General Michaelle Jean was replacing the white rose to commemorate 24 hours of 'peace' in Guatemala inside the country's Constitutional Palace, 150 national civil police agents were outside violently evicting the SITRAPETEN workers from their makeshift homes in the Central Plaza," wrote Jackie McVicar, Breaking the Silence's Guatemala-based coordinator who witnessed the incident.

SITRAPETEN has filed two charges related to the eviction—one against the municipal judge who issued the eviction order and one against the Police Director. SITRAPETEN is arguing that the judge did not have the authority to issue such an eviction order and that the Police Director did not follow proper procedures.

On May 14, Alvarez spoke to a delegation of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network. The delegation included union representatives from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the Public Service Alliance of Canada as well as university students and professors.

Before coming to Guatemala, the two delegates with the CUPW, Darrell Kelly of Woodstock, NB, and Nicola Boone of Westville, NS, raised money to give to an organization in Guatemala. After learning of the workers' struggle, they decided to give that money to SITRAPETEN.

"As members of CUPW we have a constitutional obligation to support international solidarity movements," said Nicola Boone.

Alvarez said the economic solidarity is important and that the money will be spent on food and maybe transportation to meetings, since many of their organizers have not been able to work since they were fired two years ago.

"I have always said that what is happening here isn't just a blow to our union but a blow to the international labour movement," said Alvarez in a 2008 interview with Upside Down World. "From all sides the labour movement is suffering a number of threats. So, in whatever way possible we are asking for international organizations to help us maintain the struggle."

"Supporting SITRAPETEN is important because an injury to one union is an injury to all unionized workers," said Kelly. "The world is now a global marketplace controlled by corporations seeking the cheapest place to do business. We're all workers struggling for the right to work in a healthy and safe environment with reasonable wages and benefits. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has been supporting international solidarity work for over twenty years...SITRAPETEN is the face of the union struggle in Guatemala and we're proud to support our brothers and sisters in any way we can."

Tracy Glynn sits on the Board of the Dominion/Media Co-op and is an organizer of the New Brunswick Media Co-op. An original version of this article was published by the New Brunswick Media Co-op.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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