What Happens in Bogotá Doesn’t Stay in Bogotá
by Diane Lefer
Jorge Parra is speaking out — even though his lips are sewn shut.
Parra was a skilled trades welder when he went to work for General Motors Colombian subsidiary Colmotores. There, he developed herniated discs, severe carpal tunnel in both hands, and upper spinal tendinosis.
In a translated written statement, he explained, “I underwent three surgeries and now walk with a cane due to the injuries I sustained at GM. When I first started feeling pain in my lower back and legs … I went to GM’s medical center. They gave me injections of Oxycontin and Diclofenac and sent me back to work.”
Parra, who now has several screws implanted in his spine, responded by organizing ASOTRECOL [Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores] in May 2011 and was promptly fired for “instigating resentment.”
Today, he is in Detroit, his travel paid by a US-based NGO, coming up on the second month of a hunger strike as he seeks an appointment with GM’s CEO Daniel Akerson to make a personal plea for GM to return to mediation with former workers who, like him, were fired after being injured on the job and left without livelihood.
My friend Patrick Bonner, coordinator of the Colombia Peace Project, knows about hunger strikes from back in the day when he accompanied Cesar Chavez. More recently, he’s been on ten fact-finding missions to Colombia with organizations including Witness for Peace and Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Bogotá in July 2012, he met with fired GM workers who were then camped out across the street from the US Embassy, seeking justice. At the time, the US Treasury Department still owned a 32% stake in General Motors which probably gave the Embassy, along with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, enough leverage to help induce now profitable GM to negotiate with the workers.
The talks collapsed, however, in August when the workers rejected a compensation offer so low it would not have covered medical and surgery costs or supported their families for long. Besides which, as Parra explained, the men don’t want hand-outs. Except for those totally disabled, what they want is the chance to keep working. They seek reassignment to different positions, with retraining if necessary, so that men who can no longer do heavy lifting or suffer from repetitive stress injuries can be transferred elsewhere in the plant or on the Chevy assembly line.
Sympathizers across the US began to fast in solidarity — without sewing their lips shut.
And this past Saturday, at the urging of the Witness for Peace organization, I accompanied Bonner and Maggie Peña, financial corporate consultant who was born in Colombia, on visits to LA-area GM dealerships to find out if local managers knew what was happening in Bogotá and Detroit.
Of course local dealerships don’t determine corporate policy but they also don’t answer to GM shareholders or benefit from CEO compensation packages. It seemed they would instead be concerned with any bad publicity that could tarnish the Chevrolet brand.
Peña, who has worked for major corporations including Disney, Toshiba, and IBM, said “Companies are very sensitive to how they look. You embarrass them and they are going to react.” And so we hoped that managers would join us in asking GM to agree to renewed mediation or arbitration. Still, as we traveled through the LA basin and the San Fernando Valley, we didn’t know what to expect.
At dealership after dealership, general managers and sales managers gave us thoughtful attention. (I won’t name any, in case there might be repercussions for them.)
When Peña said US corporations do things in other countries they couldn’t get away with here, and began to explain how unlikely it was for workers to reach a just solution in Colombia, where union leaders are assassinated and labor laws are rarely enforced, one manager nodded and replied, “I wasn’t born here in this country. I know what you’re saying.”
Everyone we spoke to said they would bring the subject up with the Detroit reps they deal with. GM might respond in the same way the corporation did in an email to the Wall Street Journal: “GM Colmotores is respectful of the law and has never put the health or the well-being of its employees at risk.”
GM has also released statements that almost all claims by former employees have been dismissed in court. ASOTRECOL members say their medical records were falsified. Indeed, the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy reports that Jorge Parra’s insurance carrier did indeed alter records so that his injuries would not be considered work-related. The company was found guilty for this and fined the equivalent of $16,000. However, in spite of this determination, the falsified documents remain legally binding and Parra’s claim remains dismissed — exactly the kind of shenanigans referred to by Peña.
As Peña also pointed out in visit after visit, “With global communications and social media, it’s instant. What happens in Bogotá is known right away in Los Angeles and Detroit.” Even if the managers didn’t express support for the workers, just having them raise the issue and ask questions would achieve our goal. We wanted GM headquarters to see that the struggle of the Colmotores workers cannot be kept under the radar.
Why should this matter to the average American? Due to the bailout, GM was owned by us, and the more US companies can get away with exploitative practices in other countries, the more attractive it becomes to export jobs.
After arriving in Motor City, Jorge Parra had another compelling reason. “I have talked mostly with autoworkers from the Midwest, who have shared with me their horror stories: how the two-tier wage system gives companies an incentive to continually hire low wage workers and creates tension between workers; how supervisors forced their workers to continue working in nearly 100-degree heat; and how unions are becoming weaker and unable to guarantee workers’ rights.”
He heard about tier-two workers in the US who didn’t receive all the safety training they needed to handle dangerous equipment:
“I was surprised to hear that these practices were happening here…. It seems to me that multinationals are testing out new systems of worker repression in developing countries and now they are transferring those systems to the ‘developed world.’ GM implemented a two-tier system in Colombia before it did in Detroit. Now workers are only considered for wage increases after three years on the job, but few make it that far. It is easier for GM to dispose of its workers after they have forfeited their health and before they start to cost the company more money…. This practice must not be allowed to continue in Colombia or the United States.”
In the meantime, Patrick Bonner is planning more visits to dealerships, hoping to meet more managers like the man who said, “It’s disturbing on so many levels — for humanity.” While Maggie Peña explained her involvement this way: “It doesn’t have anything to do with me being Colombian. It has to do with what’s right.”
If you wish to express your concern to General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson, please write to him at 300 Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI 48243
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist. Her latest books include The Blessing Next to the Wound, nonfiction co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal, and the crime novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, from Rainstorm Press, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry describes as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Lefer writes for LA Progressive and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. This article originally appeared on LA Progressive.