Group 184 a ruling class front. Charles Arthur interviews Yannick Etienne of the Haitian organisation, Batay Ouvriye (Workers’ Fight), an alliance of activists and workers that has been at the forefront of progressive struggles in Haiti for over a decade.
Batay Ouvriye cut its teeth in the garment assembly plant zones in the capital, Port-au-Prince, in the mid-1990s, helping workers organise themselves into unions in factories where t-shirts and pyjamas were assembled on behalf of massive US companies, such as Walt Disney. More recently, in August 2001, thanks to the legal advice, literacy classes, and constant encouragement provided by Batay Ouvriye, a number of the new unions and workers’ organisations in Haiti’s North Department got together and successfully registered with the national authorities as the First of May-Workers’ Fight Union Federation (Entèsendikal Premye Me – Batay Ouvriye in Creole).
A current focus of Batay Ouvriye’s activity over the last year has been a newly-opened free trade zone (FTZ) outside the north-eastern town of Ouanaminthe. Here, just across the border from the Dominican Republic, the Aristide government leased an extensive area of land to the Dominican textile assembly company, Grupo M, which has built factories to take advantage of Haiti’s low wages. One of Grupo M’s main clients is the giant US jeans manufacturer, Levi’s.
Question: Batay Ouvriye and the new workers’ union in the FTZ – Sokowa – have been involved in a long-running dispute with Grupo M. Can you describe the background to this dispute?
Answer: The basic issues are exploitation – working conditions, proper pay – and the right to form a union. When workers began to organise at the start of this year, the management fired 33 of its activists. With the support of international solidarity activists, we managed to pressure Levi Strauss & Co. and Grupo M to agree to re-instate those workers, and also to promise that negotiations with the union would take place. But by the beginning of June, no negotiations had taken place, and the management were treating the workers very badly. There was a one-day strike in protest, and Grupo M responded by firing 370 of the approximately 1,000 workers employed at the two factories so far operating at the FTZ. Since then, we have been struggling to get those workers re-instated.
There has been an international campaign to protest against the union-busting in the FTZ, and solidarity organisations and their supporters have sent thousands of letters and emails to Levi’s, and to the World Bank which is funding the FTZ. What has been the result of this campaign?
About 100 workers have been re-instated, but we cannot call this a success because they were taken back without any negotiation with the Sokowa union, and, of course, there are still the hundreds of other workers who have been without any income since their dismissal in June. The morale of those workers has remained high. They still attend weekly meetings each Sunday where they keep informed about the dispute and exchange information with those workers who are still working in the FTZ. Levi’s has pressed Grupo M to rehire all the workers – they had to admit that the strike was legal, and that the firings were arbitrary and illegal – but the process is slow. On the positive side, Grupo M has now begun to negotiate directly with the Sokowa union, and we are hopeful that the proposal to have two mediators – one Haitian, one Dominican – will get results.
As for the role of international solidarity, we recognise that the pressure applied by the US and British organisations – and the financial support of some British unions – has had a positive effect. Sokowa is a young union involved in a fight for its very existence, and the solidarity from all over the world has prevented Grupo M from annihilating it. In fact, has forced Grupo M to negotiate with the union. Secondly, Sokowa members are aware of the interest in their fate from people in foreign countries, and this support keeps them going. In a wider sense, the international solidarity also helps Batay Ouvriye in our struggles with other Haitian bosses – it gives us a certain leverage because they don’t want to get a bad name in the US and Europe. We also hope that the publicity given to the struggle in the Haitian FTZ will act as an example to workers in FTZs in other countries but who are afraid to get involved in union organising.
Batay Ouvriye has been involved with unionising workers in Port-au-Prince and the second city, Cap-Haïtien, but has also been active among agricultural labourers and workers growing and processing oranges for companies such as Grand Marnier and Rémy Cointreau. Given this long experience of labour organising, what reaction does your organisation have to the claim that President Aristide and his Lavalas Family Party government were overthrown in February 2004 because it was pro-worker, and for this reason the Haitian ruling class and its US and French allies could not tolerate it?
We have heard about Lavalas Family people and its supporters telling foreign audiences that Aristide increased the minimum daily wage from 15 to 70 gourdes, and that this explains the February coup against him. We must clear up the confusion here. Yes, when Aristide was first president in 1991, he did raise the minimum wage from 15 to 29 gourdes, and this did contribute to the September 1991 coup d’état. But Aristide, after he was elected for a second time in November 2000, is a completely different story. He was not involved in labour issues at all, and the minimum wage was only increased in early-2003 – after nearly three years of a Lavalas Family government – and then it was only increased to 70 gourdes. Bear in mind that with the increase in the cost of living, and an inflation rate of 40-45%, 70 gourdes was worth less than 15 gourdes had been in 1991!* People should know too that the government’s Labour Ministry did nothing to enforce the increase. In fact, it did nothing at all to regulate what was going on in the factories.
The Lavalas Family government was not pro-worker at all. The experience of the violent attack on organised workers at the Guacimal orange plantation in May 2002 says it all. How did the government react to the violent attack during which two of our supporters were killed? It called the workers ‘terrorists’! Imagine, you are fighting for your rights, and the Minister of Communications goes on the radio and calls you a terrorist!
And then there is the question of agrarian reform. In Haiti, workers are only a very small part of the population. A big majority are peasants. President Préval (1996-2000) started a limited reform but when Aristide came back to office it stopped. In the north-east, big landowners are now threatening the peasant farmers who are working on state-owned land, even asking them for rent money! Although Préval said that all state-owned land should belong to the people, we did not see any local Lavalas Family officials take any position in favour of agrarian reform. In fact, they got corrupted by the big landowners.
The Lavalas Family Party has a very bad record. Aristide failed to fulfill any of his promises to the peasants or urban poor. He could not maintain order, except by repression of the grassroots movement, and against workers and students. He did not represent any alternative for working people in Haiti.
An organisation calling itself the Group of 184 has recently appeared on the political scene, and played a leading role in the overthrow of Aristide earlier this year. We note that a number of its leaders are also owners of assembly plants. What is your analysis of the Group of 184?
The Group of 184 must be situated in the context of the traditional political parties’ failure to appeal to the Haitian people. There was a vacancy in the political set-up. While the Group of 184 claims to have the support of other sectors, we must be clear that it is a ruling class front. Part of the business class – that part involved in the import/export trade – received a lot of help from the United States for its organisations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Centre for Free Enterprise and Democracy, the New Haiti Foundation, etc. Thanks to this capacity-building, this sector has achieved a position where they think they can take over the reins of power. Before, they had politicians doing things for them, and did not come forward in person. Now they have enough power to supplant the traditional parties and to control the crucial spots in the political arena. The 184 leaders like the assembly plant operators, André Apaid and Charles Henri Baker, will not take posts themselves but will be advisors in the ‘kitchen cabinet’.
They are making this move because other efforts did not work. They tried backing the election campaign of Marc Bazin in 1990, they tried backing the military regime of 1991-94, and a lot of them even supported Aristide, but none of them worked out. What this business sector wants is the modernisation of certain parts of the state structure, such as the customs, the ports, and the electricity supply, so that they can manufacture and export their merchandise quicker and cheaper. The Lavalas Family people who were in charge of these parts of the state were either corrupt or inefficient, and, in a way, Aristide’s failings have propelled the ruling class forward to restructure the alignment of people in power.
* Note: at today’s rate of exchange 70 gourdes is approximately US$2.00 In 2003 it was about US$1.70