Sunday, January 25, 2009

Historical victory

After rejecting the proposal all was quiet for a few hours. I rested in one of the hammocks, brought my flute down to play a few tunes under the marquee, and felt worried for those who had driven the decision to reject the proposal. If they lost, how would they feel? But I had seen that it was only those at the negotiating table, tired after hours of debate, that wanted to accept the first proposal.

Those at the blockades were firm in their convictions. They set about upping the pressure by blockading more roads out of the village to stopp all subcontracted workers buses, not just those of the directly employed miners. More branches, chunks of iron anmd t-shirts were strung together to turn the buses around.

At midnight came the news. The union had proposed direct contracts for two years and the after another 8 hours of nerve wracking negotiations and meetings of our negotiating team Caves had accepted and signed the papers-

Everyone was over the moon with this situation. The long tired faces of the nogotiating team were now beaming, smiles which had disappeared under the stress.

They have job stability for two years. With just one year they would have just got started negotiating better working conditions when they would have had to return to fight for their jobs. With two years they are confident they can achieve a lot as a union. In the next few weeks they will begin negotiations around pay, health, shift timetable, the community.

The convictions, focus and positive attitude won them a historical victory in Colombia. 18000 sugar cane cutters were on strike for 2 months fighting for direct contracts and did not win what these guys have won in two days.

I am meant to be resting at the moments and been ordered to stop working so will write more reflectionsafter a few days rest but wanted to let my wonderful family know that I am safe and feel really priviliged to have been able to accompany these amazing people as they have stood firm and fought for what they know they deserve. I am already planning my return to La Loma.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

We will win or we will lose but we wont accept the same

this blog will make much more sense if you read ´Catering for the coal industry´first, and probably even more sense if i got some sleep.

The strike is about to kick off as my alarm wakes me at 2.30am yesterday morning after a week of preparations with repeated meetings at 6am, 4pm and 8pm so people from all three shifts can make it. The plan must be clandestine as Caves refuses to recognise the union and so they cannot go through the process of voting and then choosing a day. Lists were drawn up of trusted people and of people who will support the strike once it begins but have a loose tongue or who wont be convinced until it happens.

By 5am the employees of Caves had stopped production in the three Drummond kitchens that feed 2000 workers and administration every day. They blocked entrances and prevented buses leaving the village to take the workers to work. The unionised workers do not work without a hot meal. Quickly the gringos are demanding that Caves go to the negotiating table to resolve this as quickly as possible.

Around 10am two rich gringo toffs arrive in the village to chat with the women. Apparently the agreement between Drummond and Caves was that all employees would receive new contracts for three years with Caves. Amazing, just what they want. And all we have to do is stop the strike then this will be put in writing. “We do not eat words, we want that agreed and signed at the negotiating table” responds Lenis beautifully. The kind offer later becomes a thinly veiled threat. If you don’t agree to that verbal proposal then Drummond will end the contract with Caves and you will all be unemployed he tells us. Whether he really thought they would trust him or rather wanted to spread fear I’m unsure. Lenis, not in the slightest intimidated, sent him on his way with her cool collected words “to secure what we and our families deserve we will carry this to the ultimate consequence if we have to”

Advisors from Sinaltrainal arrived later in the afternoon and I was invited to come to the negotiating table. I worried that I would be perhaps, too frank. Having to listen to such insincere words in the morning got my blood boiling. The gringos accused the women of causing damage to the village and the region, which completely takes the piss when we are stood in a village with such poverty, with workers who earn pittance for working in dangerous conditions while Drummond makes $1.15billion a year. I set off to the mine with excitement, keen to learn how the dynamics of a negotiating table play out and to experience for myself what a 25000acre open cast coal mine looks like.

But nope, we were not allowed to enter the mine, nor was the food we had bought for the compañeros. I was hungry and started eating the food but with a bitterness in my mouth, knowing that I can eat in the village while those inside haven’t eaten all day. The negotiations go on until 2am; I’m unsure quite how they can debate for 8 hours when the demands aren’t complicated: direct contract with Caves for three years and an increase from the minimum salary.

I awake at 2.30am after 3 hours sleep to find out that Caves are offering direct contracts for one year, no increase in salary but recognition of the union which means they can negotiate over the coming year. We sleepily walk back into the centre, stopping for a quick coffee and enjoying the calm knowing that it is going to be another hectic day. Talk about this proposal continues as dawn arrives. Many of the women are unhappy. True that not being sacked but exactly the same working conditions is not something to celebrate or call a victory. I tell them that they have to make sure the negotiating team know how they feel, and if they want to continue fighting then they must tell people and not let the decision be made without their input.

At 5am a group decides they are going to block the road leaving the village to block the contractors’ buses. I accompany then yet we arrive to find 2 women already had the idea and the road is blocked. The new arrivals set about improving the blockade with branches, logs, concrete blocks while the contractors look on quietly: group of determined women saying with their bodies that we are not going to be treated like shit anymore and going to do all in our power to change this situation.

Discontent about the proposal on the table grows and the negotiating team is told not to sign anything without agreement from the three blockades. They arrived at the village a few hours ago, visibly exhausted after a night negotiating. Heated discussions in different groups began while a block of workers stayed sat under the shelter quietly. I urge the discussion I am present in to open this to everyone. After several efforts I succeed and we hold a spontaneous assembly. Marisela starts with an impassioned speech, no way is she moving until they win. Everyone present cheers and no one with a differing perspective is present. I step up to try and explain the different perspectives I have heard so that the compañeros can make a decision knowing the pros and cons of each.

The past two days feel a changing moment for me here in Colombia. For the first time I feel like the person I was in the UK. I have loved having these months to observe, listen, learn but it is fucking amazing to be able to get stuck in, spotting what needs doing and getting it done, chatting with people who look low, giving regular hugs to Lenis and ordering Polo to at least lay down for 5 minutes as he hasn’t slept in two days.

I´m unsure what I think is the right decision but crucial that the decision is made openly by those who are fighting with their bodies, so they do not feel let down by the union if the proposal was accepted without them nor bitter and angry if they lose their jobs.

An hour ago, they decided unanimously to reject the proposal and to endure the lack of sleep, lack of food, prospect of increased militrisation (8 riot vehicles are already parked in the village)lack of money for their families with the vision that they will win a better future for their families. They are well aware that with this decision they may lose everything, but then again they may just win……..

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Catering for the coal industry

Written on 19th January

The bus droppes me on the highway and a scootertaxi carries me into the centre of La Loma in the midday heat. Dust blows up from the unpaved road and enters into my eyes, behind my teeth, covers my clothes. 4km away is the entrance to the Drummond open cast coalmine, carving 25 million tons of coal out of the Cesar lanscape every year to feed hungry coal power stations in the US and Europe and to fill the pockets of the Drummond family in Alabama.

I am here spending three weeks with the union branch of Sinaltrainal. They want people outside of La Loma to hear of their inhumane, dangerous and humilliating working conditions within the kitchens at the mine. I have put together a report, link which you can read here.

I wanted to come here to listen and learn from people here who work within the global coal infrastructure that the climate change movement believes necessary to dismantle to prevent catastrophic climate change. James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Space Institute, has said that ending emissions from coal "is 80% of the solution to the global warming crisis" as coal reserves are far more massive than those of other fossil fuels.

I have listened a lot. Their every day difficulties dominates their conversations and when I have ventured to speak about climate change I have a sense of why on earth would this be of importance to them. They have enough problems; health, lack of decent housing, clean water, insufficient food. The consequences of climate change seem similar to what they are living now. It is not particularly desirable to imagine that life may get tougher.

Does their struggles against exploitation at the Drummond coalmine represent action on climate change? No because they they do not have an analysis of the need to drastically reduce coal production? Yes because they recognise the impacts of the coal mine in their own environment; on the water levels, the wildlife in the region and life in the villages? A friend in the village told me that 9 years ago they went 11 months without rain, unknown in the history of the village.

For me action on climate change must be action to take control of coal production out of the hands of multinationals like Drummond. They only want to expand (they are aiming to increase production from 25million tonnes to 40 million tonnes) and open more mines (a nearby 55000 acre mine, double to size of La Loma mine, is due to open in February) to keep their profits growing.

‘Free market’ reforms enabled Drummond to have total control of coal production in La Loma. Wrestling it back again so production is under popular control will involve supporting unions who organises workers to fight against exploitation, will involve educational work to agitate the workers and communities to fight for more than just a small pay rise or a new paved road. How can it be ever be justified that so many live in poverty while just one US family rakes it in? It will involve the continuation of opposition to the free trade agreement with the USA through popular movements where people understand how their daily lives is connected to international trade.
And during this long process, there will be time to explore the impacts of burning all this coal on the very people whose wellbeing is already impacted as it comes out the ground.

A company that allows workers to be suspended for taking just a bottle of water, forbidden so as to keep costs low and profits high, is not realistically going to accept changes in the laws that reduce its production without a damm powerful fight. Solidarity from people concerned by climate change will be really helpful in this.