A hunger strike is one of the most demanding — and alarming — tactics a person can undertake in the service of a struggle, but Jorge Parra says he’s run out of other options. He and other former General Motors workers from Colmotores plant in Bogota Colombia have sewn their mouth shut and are refusing food in an effort to demand compensation and justice. They say they were unjustly fired after being injured on the job and want GM to come to the table and negotiate with them.
Parra, the President of ASOTRECOL (Association of Injured Workers of Colomotores), has currently been on hunger strike since Nov. 20 and is now staying in Detroit to raise awareness about the situation in Bogota.
Back in Colombia, members of his organization camped out in the street in front of the U.S. embassy for over 500 days in an effort to get some movement on the issue, but Parra says these attempts at arbitration have gone nowhere. What’s more, they’re doing this in a hostile anti-union climate in a country where, according to the Wall Street Journal, several dozen union activists are murdered each year.
Recently Parra was joined in his hunger strike by UAW Local 140 member Melvin Thompson, a former president of the local. On Jan. 23 they delivered a petition of 76,000 signatures to GM headquarters asking the company to offer fair restitution for injured Colombian workers. Critical Moment spoke with Jorge through his translator Jimmy Johnson, following an address he gave at Central United Methodist’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event.
Critical Moment: How are you feeling?
Jorge Parra: Headache, constant pain, very weak, of course. At first I had stomach aches, but now not so much.
Why are you engaged in this hunger strike?
We’re doing this for our families in Colombia. We’re General Motors workers fired for being injured, but this doesn’t just affect us the workers. It also affects our families. If the father of the family doesn’t have a job, the kids don’t have food. If there’s not food, it’s terrible — the situation is. What we’re doing with the hunger strike and sewing our lips shut its an expression of desperation. It’s incredible what we’re going through. We’re practically dead, you know, seeing our families like this.
Can you give us some background on the situation in Colombia?
We worked for General Motors for years, for many years, and never had any kind of contractual rights. They’re always threatening us every year that if we organize together in a union, that they’d fire us.
So every year they keep up this pressure, so the people would be destabilized and the union couldn’t help anybody. So we’re in a place where General Motors basically established a mafia with the Colombian government, so the people who are supposed protect the workers, they’re working for General Motors for their interests. The laws are clear. They say that you can’t fire injured workers. General Motors can do it without any problem there — ministerial corruption.
So, there was an inspector who was investigated and sanctioned for corruption. for the workers, the fired workers, not just at General Motors, but for other multinationals. For example, Prince, the security firm and also Michelin. This Colombian inspector was sentenced to almost 8 years in jail.
Right now he’s a fugitive from justice. There are many, many more corrupt investigators in the Ministry of Labor… in Bogata.
Really it’s something very difficult because you know our association had 68 workers — we began with 68. But we had more than 200 fired workers, who were injured on the job. These were all injuries incurred as workers at General Motors — For example, carpal tunnel syndrome, elbow problems, shoulders, fractures of the spine, spinal hernias.
For myself, I was operated on two times and General Motors fired me injured and also all my companeros. Because of this we began a protest — a strike and picket — in front of the embassy of the United States.
We spent 540 days living in the street, sleeping on the concrete, waiting for the intervention of the American government. Because it was unjust that they approved the [U.S.-]Colombia Free Trade Agreement. In the text in the agreement, it puts a burden on the Colombian government to respect the rights of the workers.
General Motors isn’t just an American factory, but a factory that was saved by the American government that uses all this money from the bailout — the taxes from the American people against us. To us it’s incredible that these taxes are used to attack us in Colombia, as workers, to put out the workers without any justice.
Because of this, we began the strike, the picket, in front of the embassy. We’re demanding that the North American government respect the … rights of the workers. That it fulfills these rights, because the factory has all this tax money from Americans. This is the principal motive that brought me here to the United States to raise the visibility of this situation and raise support. For example, with the churches, who give us the opportunities to defend us, to hear us, that we have all the proof about what were denouncing. That General Motors fixes [this with] just solutions that makes right what it did to the workers to reinstate us into our place of work, re-education into a job that we’re capable of doing and also the back pay. From the pay when were fired to today. We’re just asking for justice. That’s all we want General Motors to do.
That’s why it’s so important for these opportunities and interviews.
Tell us about the plant.
The factory is called General Motors Colmotores. Its a factory that’s the largest assembly plant in Colombia. It produces the most autos sold in Colombia. They say that of every ten cars produced in Colombia, 7 or 8 of them are Chevrolet. So it’s got a lot of power and influence over the media — and also it’s made it very difficult convey the situation in Colombia because General Motors controls the media, controls the radio controls the television, and we found ourselves with absolutely no one to listen to us, to raise the visibility of our situation. So we keep fighting.
What can you tell us about negotiations with G.M.
To sum up: we asked for what I told you. Re-education, reinstatements. General Motors said no — we’re personas non grata — that they were not going to talk under any terms about an economic solution.
The economic solution that they offered us was not a just solution and it was sufficient to pay for the operations, to support our families, there was never an arrangement with them.
So apart from General Motors and their executives in Detroit, including vice president Cathy Clegg coming to us and deceiving us, that the only arrangement.
Would you compare the labor situation back in Colombia with Michigan?
Sure, I had the opportunity to tell the story that a lot of the situations that you’re going through now, for example, the infamous right-to-work laws, we also had in Colombia in the early 90s.
And it was exactly this law that took away all the worker’s rights in Colombia. It’s something really terrible. It gives all the power to the factories– the corporations basically.
We really suffered. It’s this type of law in Colombia, and we know what a terrible thing it is for workers. Right-to-work, for us, it was the beginning of the end. And it’s incredibly sad. I sincerely hope that those 26 states without such a law, don’t pass one don’t permit [it]. That it doesn’t become a majority in the United States. It’s very difficult. It’s very sad. That’s what they’re killing us with in Colombia.
They’re doing it here right now in the United States. We’ve got to wake up. People have got to think about this. We’re workers. We live with what we do with our hands. It’s very difficult to see what’s happening to workers in the United States. It’s something that already happened to us in Colombia.
What kind of response have you received in the U.S.?
Magnificent. I’ve met incredible fantastic people. Never did I think when I came here that I’d have so much solidarity. So much support. Thanks, to god first of all, for this opportunity, the unions, the churches, faith leaders, community leaders, all kinds of people who are helping us. It’s a beautiful experience. Thanks to god, because it’s great — great people.
How far are you prepared to go with the hunger strike?
I hope that I lift the hunger strike soon, because, really, I’m so affected after so many days.
I think that, for General Motors, it doesn’t matter if I live or die. So really we began the hunger strike for the desperation of living in the street without keys without anything.
So now, fortunately, we’re in a position where we’re getting more support, more help. Also [we’re] beginning to make a bigger campaign here in the United States with the help of the churches, the UAW.
Really all these people are now demanding that General Motors do something just.
Anything else people should know?
So first, our enormous gratitude for all the people who are helping us. and secondly that we hope for more support from the unions. All the people to collaborate with us more, to grow the campaign.
Wednesday [Jan. 23] there is kind of a worldwide event [of] all the General Motors unions in the world, because the situation is the situation of all General Motors workers. The same situations happen in Ecuador, Argentina, Mexico, the U.K. Also send support from the General Motors unions in Spain, Germany, Korea. All the General Motors plants are analogous to ours. So Wednesday, there’s going to be a worldwide day of action of those who are in favor of the workers and also with those especially with us in Colombia.
So right now, We’re to re-initiate the campaign organizing ourselves better to apply more effective pressure. All we can to keep up the struggle.