Taking the Plight of Injured ex-GM Workers to Shareholders’ Doors
Paige Shell-Spurling and Joe Soto are riding up and down America’s East Coast in an effort to get board members and shareholders to care about the thousands of Colombian GM workers who get injured on the job and then fired without compensation in Bogota
THOMAS HEDGES, TRNN: Five years ago this week, a group of ex-GM workers from Columbia, set up an encampment in front of the US embassy in Bogota to demand justice for a practice GM has been doing for decades. Which is firing workers after being disabled by the very work GM has them doing and without any form of compensation. Paige Shell-Spurling and Joe Soto are two activists who felt compelled enough to do what they can in the United States to raise awareness while the workers continue to protest outside the embassy in Columbia. They’re on a summer long bike ride brining the message of these Columbian workers to GM here in the United States. The Real News caught up with them as they rode through Baltimore this week.
PAIGE SHELL-SPURLING: So we did research. We figured out where the board members for General Motors live and now we’re bringing it to their doorstep, literally. My name is Paige Shell-Spurling and I’m an organizer with the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee. We’re going on a bike trip to support the injured Columbian General Motors workers.
JOE SOTO: My name is Joe Soto and I as well am supporting PCASC and the injured Columbian worker in Bogota, Columbia.
HEDGES: Workers at the plant use antiquated equipment. Health and safety measures are virtually absent. Workdays can last up to 14 hours and employees are required to work a minimum of 6 days a week after 3 or 4 years many workers develop serious muscle and nervous disorders that essentially disable them and often plunge them and their families into poverty.
Paige and Joe are 5 weeks into their ride whose purpose is to bring the worker’s message not only to the footsteps of GM management and their shareholders but to the American public, hoping at the same time to explain how the mistreatment of these workers in Columbia is something that may come back to the United States if it’s ignored.
SHELL-SPURLING: A lot of what is being faced by Columbian workers right now with the occupational safety issues, with the death threats, with just the reality that they face is similar what workers in the US were facing in the early 1990s. But we see this in a global context. We do see companies outsourcing and that sort of thing. With General Motor’s what’s going on is that they have this production plant in South America, in Columbia and they’re selling their vehicles that are made there down there. They’re not bringing those vehicles back up to the United States. But what they are trying to bring back up are the working conditions. So they’re turning to the US workers and they’re saying listen you guys have to accept these concessions. You have to give us these take backs because if not you’re not competitive.
HEDGES: But Paige says the blame can’t all be piled on to GM. The American government must accept part of the blame as well, she says. Seeing as it crafted the Columbian Free Trade Agreement GM is benefiting from. And also seeing as the US bailed GM out after the 2008 financial crisis.
SHELL-SPURLING: These workers, they set up their tent encampment and one of their banners says, US labor violations under the nose of the US embassy. Because if you remember GM was bailed out so it came underneath the – the major shareholder was the US government. And so the US government if they had wanted to resolve this, they could’ve done it and they chose not to.
So even though the intellectual property rights and things like that, the other side of the free trade agreements, there’s plenty of capacity for those things to happen and that has political will. When its workers and their rights and communities and the environment, that side of the equation is not protected. GM was negligent and they caused these injures and they’ve just found that it’s easier to develop a sophisticated system of getting these guys out then it is to do the right thing and prevent the injuries in the first place.
HEDGES: But while GM and the America government have refused to acknowledge the grievances of injured Columbian workers, Paige says their encampment and sustained actions against their mistreatment is slightly improved conditions at the plant in Bogota by way of deterrents.
SHELL-SPURLING: Yea just to give a little update. The presence of these workers in front of the embassy for the 5 years that they’ve been there has made a huge difference in Columbia. They’ve been able to hold off laws that would have legalized the firing of injured workers. Laws that GM tried to push along with other multinational corporations. They’ve made the space inside of the plant for workers to organize. There’s currently a union of injured workers that has formed. You know they’re been thousands of workers that have been injured at this plant. And it’s been going on for decades but this is the first group of workers that has stood up to General Motors and stood up to this practice. They’ve received death threats for standing up to the company. And so at this point after 5 years into it, it’s just a handful of workers that are still holding on, that are still there in front of the embassy.
HEDGES: Paige was 31 when she visited Columbia and discovered the group of injured and rebellious GM workers. Says that sadly the board members they’ve visited so far seem not acknowledge the problem at all.
SHELL-SPURLING: We went to Wendy Gooding’s house and she lives in a high rise condo so we’re able to call from downstairs. And we called up to her and she answered. And as soon as she heard what we were calling about she hung up. So we came back the next day and we left her a message. And we came back the next day and we went inside and we knocked on the door and we talked to her husband. She lives in Annapolis so she’s really close to Baltimore. And it’s really interesting because she grew up with a dad who’s a steel worker and her brother got injured on the job. He was a tool and dye worker. He got injured on the job, fought with the company for a number of years. Very similar to what she’s inflicting upon these workers in Columbia. So we’re asking her to really take a look at what she’s doing and be one of the voices on the board of directors calling for a settlement for this handful of workers would be very easy for General Motors to do so. They’re reporting record profits. So this would be a good year for them to do it,
HEDGES: When asked why after 5 years they’ve decided to embark on a bike trip that many, especially a GM could easily dismiss, Paige said it was the least they could do as the injured workers in Columbia continue to struggle not only at the GM plants but through their forms of protests, which reflect the kind of desperation they feel.
SHELL-SPURLING: You know the guys in Columbia, they’ve struggled really hard. They’ve gone through multiple hunger strikes, stitching their lips closed. They’ve literally with a needle and thread yes. They’ve done symbolic crucifixions where they’ve tied themselves to wooden crosses. They’ve done a burial action where they took 24 hour shifts burying themselves in the ground to their necks. I mean, just incredible stuff to try to just bring this out of the shadows, bring it to national attention, international attention, and it really needs to be supported by, you know actions here in the United States.
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