By Frank Hammer and Paige Shell-Spurling.

Detroit, Michigan – While General Motors CEO Mary Barra was giving the keynote address for the “Intelligent Transport Systems” world congress inside Detroit’s Cobo Hall about “driverless” cars of the future, protesters picketed outside denouncing GM’s factories of the present, which are causing an epidemic of injured workers.  As the protesters chanted “If GM factories are world class, why are workers dumped like trash?” congress attendees came out to view the protest. What they saw was a 40 ft.-long banner which read “GM WORKERS ARE NOT DISPOSABLE,” with GM World Headquarters squarely in the background.


The protesters, consisting of labor, community and student activists, were there in solidarity with ASOTRECOL, an association of autoworkers who were fired after being seriously injured on the job at a GM assembly plant in Colombia.  ASOTRECOL members have occupied a makeshift shelter for over three years at the entrance of the US Embassy, in pursuit of a just settlement with GM.  As of Sunday, Sept 7th, the day of Barra’s speech and the protesters’ action, four of the injured ex-GM workers were already on day 13 of a hunger strike, after sewing their lips shut.  To dramatize GM’s inhumanity towards the workers and their families, one of the workers is buried in the ground up to his neck.

“The workplace injuries and illegal firings in Bogota,” protest organizer Paige Shell-Spurling told the crowd, “are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an epidemic of disabled autoworkers at GM factories.”  Citing documentation provided by Nihil Mehta, General Secretary of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, Shell-Spurling added, “269 instances of spinal injuries have been documented at GM’s Halol plant – out of a plant employing 1,600.”


When asked by Michigan Radio journalist Steve Carmody about the safety problems in the company’s overseas factories, Barra “declined to comment on the foreign auto workers complaints,” Carmody reported, “except to say their complaints have been reviewed by local authorities in Colombia and India and have been ‘well-vetted.’”

Barra’s dismissive response stands in sharp contrast to her remarks to GM employees on June 5th in the midst of the vehicle recall scandal.  In a live webcast from the Warren, MI Tech Center, she signaled a departure from the “old” GM and its decade-long concealment of defective ignition switches which caused fatal crashes, killing well over 100 vehicle occupants and injuring thousands more.  She urged employees to communicate directly with her in the event they could not – at a local level – resolve quality and safety issues.

Workers and union representatives at the Bogota, Colombia and Halol, India facilities responded by sending her emails in early August to alert her to their concerns.  She dismissed their complaints out of hand, claiming they were – in her words -“well-vetted” by “local authorities.”  Neither she nor anyone else at GM ever responded to their emails.

“This is ‘old’ GM’s way of doing things,” according to 32-year veteran GM employee, and former UAW representative, Frank Hammer, who added, “Barra’s approach is like old wine in a new bottle.  The new CEO is reverting back to suppressing issues raised by employees.”


One of Colombia’s largest papers, El Tiempo, reported August 21st on a recent court decision which discredits the “local authorities” relied on by Barra.  It upheld the claims of Eduardo Mendez, another GM employee who suffered cervical spinal damage working at the Colombia GM plant.  Judges from the Constitutional Court, the article said, ruled that GM acted illegally by firing Mendez after his injury, and ordered his reinstatement.

In fact, this illegal practice was enabled by “local authorities” in the Labor Ministry, to whom Barra refers.  One of these officials, Luis Alvarado Vasquez, was found guilty of falsifying papers for GM (and other companies) and sentenced to a six-year prison term.

Debra Simmons, civil rights activist and retired Detroit school teacher, expressed the protesters’ demands, saying: “We are demanding that Mary Barra do the right thing.  We want justice, we want negotiations [with ASOTRECOL], and we want it now!”

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Frank Hammer is a member of the Real News Network Board of Directors, and has been a social justice activist for nearly 50 years. He spent the last 40 years in the labor movement as an autoworker and a member, elected officer, staff representative, and now retiree of the United Auto Workers. Frank was the former president of the Greenacres Woodward Civic Association in Detroit, and he currently represents the association as a member of the Michigan State Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. He is a lecturer in the Labor Studies Programs at Wayne State and Indiana Universities. He’s a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an activist with South East Michigan Jobs with Justice, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW-UAW), and the Autoworker Caravan.