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……..

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