OPINION | Workers paying the ultimate price in Guatemala


In the recent mobilizations in Wisconsin, a union member was photographed holding a poster that read, “You can pry my union card out of my cold, dead hand.” This worker knew labor history well enough to know our predecessors fought and died for the right to bargain collectively to achieve dignity and decent working conditions. But unlike workers in many parts of the world, most of us have thankfully not known the threat of death for our convictions.

For several years, I lived in Guatemala and worked directly in labor solidarity efforts with Central American workers who organize in the face of open threats to their safety and that of their families. I witnessed their courage firsthand and formed personal relationships with many union members and leaders.

I was outraged to learn about the murder on May 26 of another leader of the Guatemalan union SITRABI (Sindicato de Trabajadores Bananeros de Izabal), which represents Del Monte banana workers. Idar Joel Hernandez Godoy (pictured, left) was shot dead by motorcycle gunmen as he drove to the union headquarters in Morales. An international campaign by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) is underway to end anti-union violence and demand justice.

Just a few months earlier, on April 11, Oscar Humberto Gonzales Vásquez, an activist leader, was found dead with 35 bullet wounds. These murders follow a bloody trajectory of violence against banana union leaders in recent years, including several murders and the gang-rape of a union leader’s daughter.

Union challenges the transnationals

Why are these leaders being targeted? SITRABI is the largest private sector union in Guatemala, with impressive contracts negotiated over the past six decades. SITRABI has engaged in member education and organizing in the south coast area of Guatemala, where companies have moved production to non-union growers and facilities. In symbolic and real terms, they challenge the power of transnational capital in a region where it otherwise enjoys free rein.

Furthermore, these workers and leaders have stood up to harassment and intimidation of their union by the military and others, which they believe is related to the increasing violence against them. Guatemala remains a particularly dangerous country in which to be a unionist, as impunity and corruption prevent prosecution of crimes generally and especially in political cases like these.

Organized crime and drug cartels rule entire swaths of Guatemala, including the areas where banana production takes place. These well-organized groups have fueled the continuation of violence since the official end of the 36-year civil war in 1996, contributing to a homicide rate higher now than during the war. They form alliances of convenience with other power brokers to ensure territorial control. To make matters worse, Mexican drug cartels being pushed south by crackdowns at home have entered the fray and are responsible for the recent horrific massacre of 27 workers in nearby Petén.

Right: Idar Joel Hernandez Godoy crashed his truck after being shot dead by gunmen for his union organizing activities.

What does it mean to challenge a transnational corporation in a company town in rural Guatemala where the drug trade funds legitimate businesses and political parties? If you visit Morales, it’s a common sight to see pick-up trucks with half a dozen men in the back armed with machine guns. The union headquarters is a community site known to all, and isolated gravel roads travel to workers’ homes owned by the company.

Yet previous attempts to break this union were unsuccessful because brave leaders have continued to step forward despite their geographic and physical vulnerability. After a violent attack that forced its most experienced leaders into exile in 1999 and closed the union headquarters, the hall was reopened by two courageous female leaders, including my friend Selfa Sandoval. I heard her tell this story many times to visiting unionists from the U.S., and it never failed to move everyone to tears.

Impact goes beyond Guatemala

What do stories like this mean for us in the north, and what do the attacks on workers in Guatemala and elsewhere ask of us?

First and foremost, we must condemn the death of brother Hernandez and all other workers and leaders targeted for their political and union activities. Previous solidarity efforts have shown that pressure from foreign governments and citizens makes a difference in outcomes for workers in Guatemala. Take action right now through the IUF to send a message to Guatemalan President Colom demanding an investigation and end to impunity.

Second, we must push to make our policies respectful of workers rights everywhere and not allow corporations to continue to profit from intimidation and violence. This means fighting free trade agreements like those pending with Colombia, Korea, and Panama. It also means recognizing how trade and foreign policy shape immigration.

Until there is more freedom for social justice leaders to operate and basic protections for their safety, workers in Guatemala have few options to press for social and economic change. They are often faced with the stark choice of accepting inhumane wages and working conditions or migrating north in search of greater opportunities.

Finally, workers in the United States need to defend our workplace and civil rights, despite their deficiencies. We are all too familiar with the weakness in our labor laws and their inadequate enforcement. And the fundamental human right to collectively bargain is under assault, as we’ve seen by the flood of anti-worker legislation in Wisconsin, Minnesota and many other states.

Yet American workers, particularly those who belong to unions, have much greater freedom to speak out than their counterparts in countries like Guatemala.

As we take action to support the workers in Guatemala, let us renew our commitment to protect and fully enjoy our labor and civil rights here at home. Only through struggle can we make those rights meaningful and more than words on paper. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and our union sisters and brothers in SITRABI.

Mary Bellman is on the staff of the Labor Education Service, which publishes Workday.

For more information

See Bullets and Bananas: The Violence of Free Trade in Guatemala by Cyril Mychalejko, May 1, 2008.

For more detail about SITRABI and the environment of impunity for trade unionists in Guatemala, see Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Guatemala by the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, 2008, especially pp. 23-2 and pp. 49-53. (PDF file)

Massacre Leaves 27 Dead in Northern Guatemala, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2011.