Dominican troops crossed into Haiti’s Codevi Free Trade Zone
in June, it was not the first time troops had attacked Haitian factory
workers there. Since the U.S.-backed coup overthrew the Haitian
government in February, management at Grupo M, a Dominican-owned
subcontractor for Levi Strauss, has repeatedly sicced troops of
Haitian and/or Dominican origin on union sympathizers at the plant.
Etienne, a union organizer in Haiti, says that Ouana- minthe in
the Codevi Free Trade Zone (FTZ) is at once remote from the center
of Haitian political life and yet at the heart of recent events.
The area is virtually cut off from the capital city of Port- au-Prince
by miles of bad roads and difficult terrain. At the same time, Etienne
says, Ouanaminthe is where the so-called “rebel” troops
re-entered Haiti in February before the recent coup.
“rebels” are actually a U.S.-funded proxy army, like the
contras of Nicaragua, and many of them are veterans of earlier U.S.-supported
coups and bloody repressions dating back to the father-and-son Duvalier
dictatorships (1956-1987). A number of them had been in exile in
the Dominican Republic following murder charges against their leaders
related to the previous coup in 1991. These returning fugitives
also freed others from prison as they swept through the Haitian
countryside toward the capital.
two days of the 2004 coup, Grupo M workers demonstrating at the
plant saw “rebel” Haitian troops roll into town. When
the soldiers arrived in Ouanaminthe on March 2, they immediately
beat, threatened, and handcuffed the workers before forcing most
of them back to work (with the exception of 34 unionists who had
already been fired). The workers had been protesting the illegal
firing of these 34 employees for union activity, when management
called the “rebels” to town.
solidarity groups helped force a partial settlement with the workers
over the next month or so, but management continued to harass the
workers. Now, after being beaten, kidnapped, threatened, and forced
to accept mysterious “vaccinations,” all the Grupo M workers
are locked out of the plant, jobless with no unemployment benefits,
as Haitian death squads roam the area. Management says they may
close Grupo M. The workers say management abrogated its agreement
with the workers before the ink was dry.
conditions in Haiti were already desperate. In a nation of approximately
8 million, the number of permanent full-time jobs in Haiti is estimated
at about 100,000. At any one time, about 70 percent of the Haitian
people are unemployed. Minimum wage, a cruel fiction for many Haitian
workers despite the law, is said to hover around one-third of the
cost of living.
the coup in late February, the situation has worsened. The organized
violence against workers at Grupo M has very nearly become a model
for workforce discipline. According to the Haitian union federation
Batay Ouvriye (Workers’ Struggle), factory owners and big landowners
(“grandons” in Haiti) have been calling in the troops
to repress agitated factory workers, sharecroppers, and farmworkers.
Many others, who have not been the direct target of armed thugs,
are terrified by the brutal tactics of the U.S.-supported troops,
past and present.
[Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress] is back,” proclaimed
the “rebel” troops, as the elected government fell, referring
to the notorious U.S.-backed death squads that had driven
organized labor and other progressives underground in the 1991-1994
bloodbath. Just to show they meant business, when the troops took
Port-au-Prince in February, they locked a group of ousted President
Aristide’s supporters in a shipping container and tipped them
into the sea. The silence from their U.S. sponsors over this incident
and others has been deafening.
labor has always been at the heart of U.S.-Haitian relations, ever
since the Haitian Revolution in 1804. It was actually a slave rebellion,
the first and still the only successful one in modern history. The
U.S. sided with French colonialism as the U.S. economy was based
on slavery at the time and Haiti represented the first “dangerous
era of gunboat diplomacy followed, in which the richest colony in
the world was militarily reduced to debt slavery. The U.S. sent
ships into Haitian waters over 20 times before finally occupying
the country outright from 1915-1934. By the time the U.S. Marines
left Haiti, they had slaughtered 20,000 insurgents, re-written the
Haitian constitution, and established Haiti as a U.S. plantation.
U.S.-backed dictatorships enforced an economic subservience that,
beginning in the 1960s, included foreign-owned assembly plants,
or maquiladoras, that subcontract for major corporations like Disney,
Target, Wal-Mart, Sears, Kohl’s, GAP, and Levi Strauss. The
overwhelming popularity of Haiti’s first democratically elected
president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was
primarily based on his challenge to this subservience: he proposed
a program of reforms that included nearly doubling the Haitian minimum
program of reform is also what earned Aristide the condemnation
of U.S. business interests, the U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID), and U.S. administrations under Presidents George H. W.
Bush and William J. Clinton. The Bush administration backed the
1991 coup that overthrew Aristide and the Clinton administration
resisted incredible international pressure, refusing to return Aristide
to Haiti until the deposed leader agreed to give up much of the
reformist platform that got him elected. One of the concessions
the U.S. demanded was the establishment of “free trade zones,”
such as the Codevi FTZ, where workers would be especially vulnerable
to the ravages of corporate investors.
Against The Hydra
the vast forces arrayed against them, the Grupo M workers are in
a unique position to call on international solidarity. Levi Strauss
has a Code of Conduct which requires its subcontractors to respect
workers’ rights, adopted as a result of the anti-sweatshop
movement of the 1990s. The Grupo M factory had been built with a
$2 million loan from the World Bank in 2003, conditional on respect
for the workers’ right to organize a union. The union rights
provision was a result of an earlier campaign organized by Batay
Ouvriye, with which the Grupo M unionists are affiliated.
when the troops started beating up workers at Grupo M, the union
called on international allies to remind Levi Strauss and the World
Bank of their obligations. The call went out through solidarity
groups from Paris to London to New York, as well as through several
multi-union websites dedicated to online activism. Thousands of
supporters wrote letters to corporate offices, telephoned representatives,
and passed resolutions in their local unions. When management at
Grupo M finally agreed to take back the fired workers, the celebration
was reportedly delirious.
once the deal was signed and the pressure was off, Grupo M announced
that the fired workers must come to a meeting in three weeks instead
of returning to work right away. They sent a representative to receive
the union’s demands, which they already had. Then they met
with Grupo M employees, but refused to include Batay Ouvriye’s
in the plant during this time had also taken a turn for the worse.
Supervisors threatened workers, changed work rules, and began injecting
them with unspecified “vaccinations,” which the workers
feared were sterilizations. Nine women had miscarriages in their
third trimester of pregnancy following the injections.
June 2, when management’s representative failed to show up
for a planned meeting, even though he was seen in the building,
the workers voted to strike. The next morning, every Grupo M worker
walked off the job. Management was sputtering, demanding to meet
with union representatives of its own choosing (a violation of Haitian
law), insisting on a list of union members (also illegal), and finally
threatening to close the plant.
the strike, plant managers also summoned four women inside, where
armed Dominican guards stripped them of their work shirts and badges
and questioned them. When the strikers outside began clamoring for
their release, the women were allowed to clothe themselves, but
soon a truckload of Dominican soldiers pulled up and aimed their
weapons at the workers. Workers say these guards also beat a woman
who was four months pregnant and threw her into a mud puddle.
walkout continued until June 8, when management agreed to negotiate
with the union and the workers agreed to return to work. However,
when the workers arrived at the plant the next morning at 5:30 AM,
they discovered that Grupo M had locked them out.
the workers have not given up. They continue to demonstrate and
to appeal to the Haitian Ministry of Labor. Batay Ouvriye has called
on “all workers and progressives” to unite against the
“international multicorporate world of today.” At present
the workers are asking supporters from around the world to demand
action from Levi Strauss and the World Bank (www.haitisupport.gn.apc.org).
would like to encourage the people in the United States to remain
concerned about what is happening in Haiti,” says Jannick Etienne,
“not to be taken in neither by mainstream media, nor by other
media’s placing specific political interest above what is happening
to the popular masses on a daily basis. We hope they will continue
to follow the events, take contact with us and fight with us as
they can for our common interests.”
Baldwin is a labor and anti-war activist who writes frequently for
Z Magazine, Dollars & Sense,