U.S. Proxies Terrorizing Workers
In Haiti.. Again
by Ricky Baldwin
Z magazine, September 2004
When 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.
Jannick Etienne, a union organizer in
Haiti, says that Ouanaminthe 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.
These "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.
Within 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"
International 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.
Working 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.
Since 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.
"FRAPH [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.
Human Resource Colony
Cheap 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 example."
An 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.
Successive 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 wage.
This 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.
Help Against The Hydra
Despite 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.
So, 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
But 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 delegate.
Conditions 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.
On 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.
During 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.
The 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.
Yet 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
"We 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."
Ricky Baldwin is a labor and anti-war
activist who writes frequently for Z Magazine, Dollars & Sense,
and Labor Notes.