Protesting GM Auto Workers Attacked by US Embassy Staff
US labor activists have filed a complaint with the Dept. of Justice and the SEC, charging the General Motors Company with a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, says Frank Hammer, retired General Motors employee and former president and chairman of Local 909 in Warren, Michigan
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Jorge Parra, president of the Association of Injured Workers & Ex-Workers of GM Colmotores in Colombia was released from custody on November 19. This came after a Bogota television station broadcast footage showing officials from the U.S. Embassy pulling disabled worker Manuel Ospina to the ground and hitting and kicking him as a group. Watch a Spanish-language news report here.
The injured workers have been protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy, demanding reinstatement with work that they can be doing or legally retired with compensation. Let us have a look at what some of the injured workers are saying about why they’re protesting in front of the embassy in Bogota.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL): Quite simply, a worker who cannot do his job, a worker who is injured from his job is no longer useful to them, because we no longer produce at the same rhythm as the workers who are healthy, and because we are injured, they dismiss us.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Really there are a lot of people, there are a lot of people who have been injured from their jobs with the company.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): More than 20,000 workers have passed through, workers who have been deceived and used.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This has been happening for many years, five, ten, 15, 20 years, up to 25 years – workers have been leaving injured.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Their injuries come from repetitive movements, heavy lifting and harmful body positions.
PERIES: Now U.S. labor activists have filed a complaint with the Department of Justice and the SEC, charging the General Motors Company with a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act at the Chevrolet assembly facility in Bogota, Colombia.
Now joining us to discuss all of this is Frank hammer. Frank Hammer is a retired General Motors employee and former president and chairman of Local 909 in Warren, Michigan. He now organizes with Autoworker Caravan, an association of active and retired autoworkers who advocate for workers’ demands in Washington.
Thank you so much for joining us, Frank.
FRANK HAMMER, COFOUNDER, AUTOWORKER CARAVAN: Thank you very much, Sharmini.
PERIES: So, Frank, tell us what’s really going on in front of the embassy in Bogota, Colombia, that’s in front of the U.S. Embassy.
HAMMER: The members of ASOTRECOL, who have been in encampment in front of the Embassy now for three years and three months decided that they had to up their ante of the struggle, and earlier this week they chained themselves to some part of a building of the Embassy, not interfering with egress and ingress, but to dramatize their struggle to get justice with General Motors. And there was very, very soon after they took this action that suited Embassy officials came out to cut the chains and actually roughed up and beat on these three workers, who, of course, are disabled. They have been disabled from their work at General Motors. So in a sense, General Motors, through the U.S. Embassy, reinjured these workers after they had been injured in the factory.
PERIES: So, Frank, why in front of U.S. Embassy and not General Motors?
HAMMER: Well, when they started the encampment back in 2011, I believe it is now, the General Motors was partly owned by the U.S. government. As they came out of the bailout of General Motors, the U.S. government still had sizable interest in the company. And so the workers decided that they should protest in front of the Embassy to bring to the attention of U.S. government that they had a role to play in getting General Motors to obey the laws of Colombia.
And that’s how it began, and that protest has now continued. And, of course, the U.S. government can still play a role, even though it does not have the ownership stake in stock in General Motors. And that’s why they have remained there all this time.
PERIES: And why have you filed this with the DOJ and the SEC? You filed a 16-page charge with bribery and corruption. Why have you done that?
HAMMER: Well, the General Motors Corporation has wanted these workers to find legal avenues in the Colombian court and government system. And in fact, over the last three years, the workers have attempted to appeal to the Labor Ministry in Colombia, to the Attorney General’s Office, to the social insurance company, and every which way that they turned, they found one block after another, one obstacle after another. And it became clear after a while that the government officials, for example, in the Labor Ministry have been acting on behalf of General Motors and preventing investigations from being conducted or undermining an investigation, but in every which way, covering for General Motors. And the workers have been unable to achieve any kind of settlement or any kind of justice through that system. And as they documented their experience, they were able to identify a particular Labor official in the Labor Ministry that has jurisdiction over the GM Colmotores plant. And from all the inactions or the illegal actions that he was engaged in, there is no question that he is being in some way compensated by General Motors for going out of his way to violate the law.
PERIES: Now, Frank, you’ve been an autoworker. Can you describe to us what some of the–and you’ve been to Colombia as well and you’ve been speaking to some of these workers in the past. Describe to us what some of the labor or assembly line work entails, how they might have gotten these injuries, the nature of the injuries, so that people get a sense of what their experience is on the plant.
HAMMER: But the particularities of this particular GM facility is that the plant, the original plant, was built in 1959. GM took it over in 1977. And from every indication that I include–the reports of UAW, GM, health and safety officials–the conditions in the factory are quite antiquated. They work with very antiquated equipment, old-style, for example, welding guns for the body shop. And between the poor equipment and lack of health and safety conditions, coupled with the pace of the work, coupled with the extreme hours that they worked–12 to 14 hours a day, minimum six days a week–that over a period of three or four years, the workers developed all kinds of muscle and nervous disorders, so that they acquired injuries on their spinal columns, they had rotator cuff issues, carpal tunnel syndrome. These kinds of things are somewhat familiar in GM and other facilities in the United States, but, of course, in the United States GM has agreements with the union, my union, UAW, where we’ve been able to prevent some of these. But if you go to the Colmotores plant, GM and the Colombian government managed to get rid of the union, basically, and it’s a nonunion plant now. So these conditions have been allowed to prevail and have resulted in extensive injuries, debilitating injuries, for many, many, many workers.
PERIES: So as a result of being let go from these plants, they really have no livelihood. And they–not only they, but their families, particularly the children, are also suffering, not to mention their communities, from not having these kinds of incomes. What are you hoping will come out of your complaint to the Department of Justice? And what is the best-case scenario here in terms of your expectations?
HAMMER: Well, the workers all along have sought to get a settlement with General Motors. And it should be noted that General Motors, due to one of the workers’ hunger strikes back in 2012, agreed to meet with the workers for a mediation. And the mediation was interrupted, and General Motors refused to return to reach a settlement. So ultimately that’s what the workers have been seeking all along.
They were seeking the help of U.S. Embassy. The U.S. ambassador in Bogota, Ambassador Whitaker, who happens to drive by the tent encampment for every day that he goes to work and sees the encampment, has refused to meet with the workers because the workers are seeking to get the Embassy’s assistance in bringing GM back to the table.
The purpose of the action taken with the Department of Justice and the SEC is to initiate an investigation of the claims by the workers, backed up by many, many documents, that the Colombian officials have been acting illegally and that they’re acting illegally due to corruption and bribery on the part of General Motors Company. The ultimate hope is that GM would desist in these practices, that they would honor Colombia labor law and regulations, and that the workers and their families can reach a settlement with General Motors per the Colombian law or through a settlement, through a mediation, so that they can go on with their lives. They are disabled. They’re unable to work. It is only by virtue of support and solidarity from different parts around the globe, but especially here in Detroit and the United States, that they’ve been able to sustain their battle this long, I’m sure beyond the wildest dreams of General Motors management. I’m sure they never expected the struggle to be here three years later.
PERIES: Frank, this is certainly not unique for American companies working in other parts of the world as well, not only in Colombia. So it’s a very important story, and we hope to be following this and the outcome of this particular complaint that you have launched here, and I hope you come back and keep us posted on all of this.
HAMMER: I much appreciate the extent of coverage by The Real News. It’s really a break with the corporate media that has dampened the story so that nobody is even aware of it. So thank you so very much to The Real News.
PERIES: You’re most welcome.
And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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