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  • Breaking Their Backs for General Motors

    Frank Hammer

    A COLOMBIAN AUTOWORKER SPEAKS OUT

    BREAKING THEIR BACKS FOR GENERAL MOTORS

    An interview with ASOTRECOL President Jorge Parra

    by Frank Hammer, retired UAW-GM representative

     

    Introduction: “No worker in the U.S. would work under these conditions”

    “GM remains committed to ensuring a safe, healthy work environment for all employees…GM has a strong track record of corporate responsibility and citizenship – a commitment it has upheld for more than 56 years.  The site’s safety processes meet GM’s stringent standards, consistent with General Motors facilities around the world. “

    This is an excerpt of the statement issued by General Motors at the conclusion of the failed mediation between its Colombian subsidiary and a small group of workers formerly employed at its Colmotores Chevrolet Assembly plant in Bogota.  The mediation, which concluded on August 31, 2012, was intended to resolve claims by the workers against abuses by GM Colmotores management which left them jobless and physically and mentally injured.  Jorge Parra, president of the injured and fired GM workers’ association ASOTRECOL, brought their quest for justice to Detroit in early September, which is where I interviewed him for this article.  Once you read Jorge Parra’s descriptions of what it was like to work at his former plant, you can decide whether GM’s statement passes a “fact check.”

    The workers went into the mediation claiming they sustained job-related injuries while working at the plant, and were subsequently fired due to those injuries.  Out of a job, basically crippled, and wishing to hold GM responsible for their circumstances – the workers - part of a larger group of 68 - sought justice.  In labor-hostile Colombia, government channels six attempted mediations proved fruitless.  So they formed an association – ASOTRECOL – and initiated a tent encampment at the US Embassy in Bogota.  They chose the embassy in the hope of convincing the US government – with its 30% stake in GM – to compel the corporation to make the workers “whole.”   The encampment began August 1, 2011 and continues as I write this into its 437th day.  On August 1, 2012 they escalated their non-violent tactics by starting a hunger strike.  To dramatize their plight even more, they took needle and thread and sewed their mouths shut.

    That – and protests cropping up around the world, including at GM’s world headquarters in Detroit – is what it took for General Motors’ central office to finally take notice.  That’s what motivated Catherine Clegg, GM’s Labor Relations chief for North America, to amass as many as 80 GM “suits” from all over the hemisphere to fly into Bogota to determine what seemed to be the problem.  The UAW sent representatives too, including the head of its GM Department Director Joe Ashton, along with UAW-GM Health and Safety reps.  It is noteworthy that the safety reps, who toured the Colmotores facility, compared it to the factories that workers in the United States worked in 40 years ago.  They told Jorge, “No worker in the U.S. would work under these conditions.”

     

    About Jorge Parra, President, ASOTRECOL

    I interviewed Jorge four days into his renewed hunger strike, with the assistance of an interpreter affiliated with Witness for Peace.  Thirty six years old, he is the father of a 4-year old daughter who is living at home in Bogota with his mother, her aunt and one cousin.  Jorge – who is 5’ – 8” tall, is a soft-spoken man who walks with a limp aided by a cane, the product of his ordeal at GM.

    Jorge was no ordinary worker on the assembly line.  Before hiring at GM in 2004, he was a certified journeyman welder who worked for 4 years in rural areas of Colombia welding pipe and doing construction for the likes of oil giants BP and Ecopetrol.  He liked the good pay but tired of the lifestyle, working 25 days straight in the field interspersed with 8 days off in between.  Besides, he wanted to go back to school to study mechanical engineering, and wanted to live closer to his mom in Bogota.  With his savings he was able to buy a modest 3 room house and settle down for the new chapter in his life.

    At the age of 26, Jorge got a job as a production welder at the GM plant.  Although he would earn less than before, he looked forward to the stable and more secure work, and the ability to study at night – which he subsequently did for 6 semesters.  Getting hired required good references, an interview, and a medical exam (which he passed).  By the year 2004, GM was no longer offering indefinite hiring contracts.  Instead, Jorge was hired under terms of a 1 year, fixed-end contract, also referred to as a “collective pact.”  Designed as a substitute for a union contract, the “collective pact” is an arrangement between GM and a group of hand-picked worker “representatives” or what is more commonly referred to as a “yellow” or “company union.”  The “collective pact,” among other things, requires new hires to sign a statement verifying they will not join a union.

     

    Working at GM Colmotores: “One person does the work of four people.”

    The workforce at GM Colmotores was once a militant union, peaking at a membership of 1,400 workers (out of an all-male work force of 1,800) in the mid-nineties.  In 1997 the union struck GM for better wages and benefits.  One month into the strike, with the support of the Colombian government, GM fired 600 strikers, and hired new, nonunion workers in their place.  By the time Jorge was hired as a production welder, union membership had dwindled to just 80 members; at the time of his firing nine years later, it had declined to 45.  That’s how many senior workers (hired in under long-term contracts) remained.

    Jorge described the plant as “clean and airy.”  It was built and operated as a car assembly plant 20 years before GM took control in 1979.  The plan has since produced Daewoo, Isuzu, and Susuki vehicles for the local market, all under the Chevrolet nameplate. This includes the “Spark” (at left) currently imported to the U.S. from So. Korea.

    During the nine years he worked there, Jorge operated heavy, cumbersome and unwieldy welding guns, performing numerous welding operations on a variety of different models assembled at Colmotores – small cars (the Chevrolet Aveo, Optra and Spark) as well as 6-ton trucks. He was trained to do them all. As a production welder, he had to get into difficult postures to perform operations that required a lot of strength and repetition. “One person,” Jorge told me, “does the work of four people.” In his first years there he was required to push the cars from one station to another. His air-powered, water-cooled welding guns or “pistolas” (he operated four or five) hung from overhead lines, often weighing 2-300 kilos (or 4-600 pounds). The hoses they were connected to weighed even more.

    His workday was typically 6:30 am to 5:30 pm, 6 days a week. A nine hour shift produced in the range of 50-60 cars off one line. However, the workers had to arrive at the plant 3/4s of an hour in advance to make it to the line on time from 5-6 blocks away – where their lockers were located. At 6:30 am a loud alarm would go off, and then – in Jorge’s particular assembly area - the loudspeakers would start up with “The Bridge on the River Kwai Theme Song.” He told me another line nearby played “La Bamba.” These tracts would be played on a continuous loop for the entire shift, except when the workers went on two ten-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch. The tune never changed and many workers, Jorge explained, suffered psychologically. He could not get the tune out of his head come his one day off, Sunday. He said, “It was like being at work,” and he soon grew to despise the tune.

    All along the assembly route there are quality “detection points.” If a quality problem was detected, the tune in that area was played louder, so as to pinpoint responsibility. If Jorge and his fellow workers did not complete the required number of cars in, say an hour, the team leader would come around to find out why and who was responsible, and post the information for all to see. I asked Jorge if it was the Toyota Production system, and he answered that “it was called the ‘Global Production System’ and originated with Ford.”

    Their first of two 10-minute breaks came at 9:00 am. Someone would come around the line on a truck with bread and coffee. If a worker didn’t make it to the lavatory in the time allowed – and had to go during work time – he was required to fill out a voucher and wait for the team leader to replace him. If a worker uses more than three such vouchers in a week, it would be written into their work record, and thus reflect negatively on his performance. Team leaders were usually in charge of 7-8 people and were once production workers themselves, although they’re paid considerably more. “So what if you felt sick while working on the line?” I asked. He explained workers would go to the medical center, might get an injection or a pill, and then would be returned to

    work. It was impossible to leave work, unless you were the victim of an accident, or were otherwise incapacitated. Lunch came at 12:30. He explained that it wasn’t safe to eat closer for fear of the radiation and toxic fumes, so workers walked outside 500 meters where one of two multinationals – Sodexo and Catherin - operated a lunchroom. Between the long walks and waiting in line to get food dished out, Jorge often times had only 5 minutes to sit and eat.

     

    “INJECTIONS 3-4 TIMES PER WEEK”

    The worst physical hazards were on the line. For Jorge it started when he began to detect pain in his buttocks and down his legs. These were apparently signs of a compression of his spinal column or, as the plant medical personnel told him, a herniated disk. He had finished doing the body welds on five units when he felt an unbearable pain in his back. He couldn’t move. He was taken off the line, sent to medical to get an injection, and then driven in an ambulance to a hospital – where after a week, he had spinal surgery (a microdiscectomy with laminectomy). Subsequent to his operation, whenever he started feeling pains, he would go to medical, where he received injections of diclofenac (anti-infammatory pain reliever) or dipirona – (a dangerous analgesic banned in the U.S. in 1977). This would occur 3-4 times per week. Jorge estimated receiving 70-80 such injections.

    His pains were not confined to his legs or back; he suffered from swollen hands, and searing pain in his shoulders. This was due to the vibrations from the welding guns and their associated electromagnetic fields. Doctors performed an MRI, poked him with needles and treated his pained muscles with electric shocks. He suffered carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) in both wrists. They operated on his left wrist, preferring to do nothing to his right wrist since he uses it to lean on his cane. Despite the surgery, the carpal tunnel continued.

    Ferney, a co-worker who met the same fate as Jorge (and who helped form ASOTRECOL), had one of his fingers severed and two others crushed while operating a welding gun. He was taken to a private medical facility, where they sewed the finger back together and bandaged the other two. He had to return to work the following day, still medicated, which he did. Another co- worker and hunger striker, Juan Carlos, wasn’t so “lucky.” His job on the line, tightening wheel lug nuts, gave him severe back pain over time. 15 days after he was diagnosed with a herniated disk, he was fired. Still another worker, Manuel, had the job of carrying truck transaxles (front-wheel drive transmissions) on his shoulder, carrying them down steps into the pit beneath the moving conveyor, so as to position them into place on the vehicles. He was a big man, strong enough to carry transaxles weighing 40-50 kilos – about 100 lbs. One day he slipped down the steps, severely injuring his spine – “displacing it 6 mm (1/4 in),” according to Jorge. Management didn’t want to pay the medical bills, even though medics deemed the injury “occupational.”

    “THE PLANT MADE IT A PRACTICE TO UNDERREPORT ACCIDENTS”

    Plant management was required to report lost time accidents. However, there was a disincentive: the higher the number of lost-time accidents, the more expensive the plant’s premiums were for health care coverage. “So,” Jorge said, “they hide what happens.” The insurers rated the plant on a 1-to-5 scale, a “1” being the safest. The plant was rated a “3,” but Jorge says it should have been a “4.” He estimated that the “3” rating saved the plant $10-20 million per year. So the plant made it a practice to underreport accidents. When workers were suspected to be suffering from a work-related ailment or injury, they would be reported to Labor Relations, and then fired. Workers would therefore not report injuries for fear of losing their jobs. Jorge told me his co-workers had a name for this practice: “comer el burro” (translation: eating the donkey).

    The culture of fear was pervasive; workers would routinely start the workday slathering a hot “ben gay” type balm on their hands, wrap them in ace bandages, then put work gloves on – not to protect their hands, but to conceal the bandages. “When you entered the locker room,” Jorge added, “you couldn’t help but smell the balm.” The firing of workers who are injured on the job was not confined to GM’s employees. “A woman who worked for the food vendor Sodexo,” Jorge told me, “spilled hot water on herself, and was fired.”

    A WORKFORCE FRACTURED INTO THREE-TIERS

    Our discussion turned to wages. The “second-tier” workers – the ones hired under the one-year pacts, are paid 1,100,000 pesos/month. At 1,820 pesos = $1, one month’s pay equals $550-600. The senior workers – the ones in the first tier - make twice as much. “So,” Jorge elaborates, “it’s cheaper to hire the new workers, and get rid of the old. Last year many were fired, and many hired. They laid off 400 due to an alleged “slowdown,” saying ‘We’ll call you back when business picks up,’ but they never do.”

    There’s even a third tier. Alongside the 1,800 workers employed directly by GM, there were another 2,000 who performed maintenance, logistics and other non-production tasks. They’re “precarious workers,” and make way less income than the GM tier 2. Who these people worked for reveals how corrupt labor practices are under Colombian law. While the companies these employees work for are legally recognized as “worker-operated cooperatives,” they are more often than not temp agencies run by sub-contractors. The practice was made illegal under the recently negotiated Colombia Free Trade Agreement and the related “Labor Action Plan,” but the contractors get away with it anyway. The only workers still protected, and who still enjoy employment stability, are the veteran workers in tier 1 who helped found the union 38 years ago. “They’re tired,” Jorge told me, “and just waiting for their pensions. They’re tired of the fight.”

    “3 ½ months ago, a new union was formed by 30 brave people. The problem is that there is no job stability. These workers will likely be fired at the end of their first year, and the company won’t bring them back.” Jorge added, “The union’s days are numbered.” He tells me that 18-22 year olds dominate the workforce, and now sees people leaving “after 3-4 years.”

    I asked him what the supervisors were like, to which he responded with a whipping action, accompanied by a grin. “The higher they rise in the ranks,” he replied, “the more they intimidate and harass. They hold power over the workers with performance evaluations. If your CV [work record] at the end of the year reflects poor performance, say 5 quality errors and 2 sick days, you might not return. So the workers will try to befriend the bosses, and try to butter them up.” And what about the role of the hand-picked worker “representatives,” I asked? Jorge explained that they were new-hires who trolled the plant to spy on workers who exhibited union proclivities. The workers have a name for them: “esquiroles” (translation: snitches).

    There’s evidence that the dramatic actions of the injured and fired workers who formed ASOTRECOL have improved conditions for the workers currently employed at GM Colmotores. According to Jorge, “the company no longer fires injured workers. They are afraid that if they do, the fired workers will run to the tents where we are protesting.” Health advisors now visit the company, offering more oversight. Eight robots were recently installed, replacing some of the more physical operations. But GM has a long way to go.

    “IN THE U.S. THERE ARE WATCHDOGS TO ANSWER TO”

    In the words of someone familiar with GM’s health and safety practices in unionized plants in the U.S. and Canada:

    “GM has designed or modified their production operations in North America to reduce or eliminate work tasks which require difficult postures. GM installs robots to perform the production welding operations, eliminating workers’ exposure to toxic fumes and radiation, and improve quality. They install “lift- assists” for heavy and unwieldy tools to reduce the repetitive physical strain known to result in injuries. Regarding lifting heavy parts, workers are restricted to lifting 40-50 lbs., once per day. Otherwise the handling of weight is regulated by the ergonomics process, which looks at the weight that’s lifted, the repetitions, etc. Lifting 100 lb. transaxles every day without lift-assists, as Jorge Parra describes, is just a complete no-no.

    “In Michigan, the UAW, General Motors, and MIOSHA developed an ergonomics program for the protection of GM workers. Joint Ergonomic Technician Team (JETT) representatives work with engineering, production, maintenance, medical and safety representatives to develop tools and processes to augment workers’ jobs that have resulted or could result in injuries and illnesses. The parties agree that, once a tool and/or process are deemed acceptable and preferable for performing a job task, employees are trained and provided the tools to perform the task accordingly. This has significantly reduced the number of cases of carpal tunnel, tennis elbow, and similar injuries resulting from repetitive-type work.

    “In negotiations with the UAW, GM developed an industrial Hygiene program to recognize and control environmental factors arising in the workplace that may cause sickness, impair health or wellbeing, or lead to significant worker discomfort. Examples include air quality systems such as heating and ventilation, dust/mist/oil collection, exhaust systems, fans, noise levels, metal removal fluids, asbestos exposure, radiation exposure, and chemicals/hazardous materials.

    “Medical treatment for UAW-GM workers hurt on the job is not limited or restricted. Workers Compensation laws protect workers who are hurt on the job, and provides for medical treatment and pay while they recover from their injuries. At the first sign of injury or illness, union and management representatives investigate the site to determine how to eliminate the hazard or stressor. If performing the same work can result in re-injury, the worker is put on another job that can be performed safely. No employee is required to perform a task which could exacerbate an existing injury as each lost time injury appears in logs maintained by OSHA (or equivalent state agency) – something GM is keen to avoid.

    “Two decades ago it was not uncommon to discover GM in the U.S. trying to conceal lost-time injury reports, much like is described in this interview. GM also used to hate OSHA plant interventions and was combative over paying any fines. That’s all changed for the better. Between the Federal and local governments, various national health and safety agencies like ANSI and ACGIH, and the UAW, GM has watchdogs to answer to.

    “I would say working conditions at the Colmotores plant are as bad as – or worse than – what GM in the U.S. was like 40 years ago. Back then, workers were routinely exposed to chemical hazards, asbestos, and a myriad of other dangerous materials, for which hardly any protective gear was issued. That’s back when there wasn’t even a lockout procedure, when many of these hazards were unknown. There’s no excuse for the bad health and safety practices now.”

    THE ASOTRECOL WORKERS MUST BE MADE “WHOLE”

    Jorge and his crippled and jobless cohorts are content with the improvements they’ve helped trigger within GM Colmotores. They know the changes have been the result of their very visible struggle at the entrance to the U.S. embassy, especially their hunger strike made graphic by the threads - pictured in billboard size photographs - sealing their lips. These improvements affirm that GM’s practices have been brutally anti-worker and a far cry from its claims of “…ensuring a safe, healthy work environment for all employees” and “…safety processes meeting stringent standards, consistent with General Motors facilities around the world.”

    It’s time that GM make reparations to these workers, with re-employment on jobs they can do, compensation for their employment loses, payment for their medical expenses, pensions for those so badly injured that they can no longer work, and recognition of a union of their choice. GM knows all too well that a favorable settlement for the ASOTRECOL workers has the potential of opening GM liability for other claims at Colmotores, and igniting a movement in its other Latin American plants where similar conditions exist - all the more reason to press for it.

     


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