By JOSE MONTEROJO
This information in this article is based on interviews with members of the Socialist Workers Party, the section of the International Workers League – Fourth International / Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores in Colombia.
In the Caribbean city of Cartagena, Colombia, the Union Sindical de la Industria Alimenticia (USTRIAL) represents and mobilizes more than 300 women workers who work for SEATECH International. In this tuna industry, 1800 workers, mainly women, work under intensely exploitative conditions cleaning and canning tuna for the international market. The outsourcing of the industry, which began in 1998 in order to eliminate union influence and increase exploitation, resulted in companies supplied with extreme working hours and the absence of union representation.
In 2008, labor militants here formed Manos Muertas (“Dead Hands,” in reference to the carpal tunnel suffered by many women working for SEATECH as a result of the repetitive movements they make during long working hours). Manos Muertas was not a union per se but a social organization with the aim of documenting abuses of women workers and supporting them in their medical claims. In this way, strong relationships were formed with the workers.
During this time, a union already existed at SEATECH, although its behavior favored the company rather than the workers in struggle. The comrades of Manos Muertas formed USTRIAL in 2010 to create a militant, democratic, and militant union that would truly fight for the interests of the workers instead of collaborating with the bosses. Sixty-five workers founded it, and others soon joined. In response, SEATECH fired almost all of them, replacing them with workers from nearby Barranquilla. For a time, USTRIAL disappeared because of the dismissal of its affiliates. USTRIAL responded with a legal action with the state, claiming that the firings were illegal, which it won, resulting in the reinstatement of the workers.
Since then, USTRIAL has had to fight against the arbitrary dismissal of its members. Although there are multiple unions within SEATECH—the largest being the bosses’ union—it is the members of USTRIAL who suffer arbitrary repression for the simple fact of being part of USTRIAL and claiming their just rights. Today, there are several USTRIAL members that SEATECH has prohibited from entering the factories because of its fear of their union work. They are still formally employed and receive their salaries but cannot work in the factory.
The formation of USTRIAL led to improvements in working conditions. Previously there were hardly any labor protections; now vacation periods, reduced workdays, and medical recommendations were achieved (this last victory is significant since a third of the 1800 workers suffer from physical illnesses due to SEATECH’s exploitation).
The tuna industry continues to generate high profits at the expense of the welfare of its workers, the vast majority of whom work not directly for SEATECH but for its suppliers. Outsourcing work is the reality for at minimum one-third of the Colombian working class.
In 2021, at the height of the pandemic in Colombia, a social mobilization broke out throughout the country. The Colombian masses took to the streets against a tax reform proposed by then-president Ivan Duque that would have increased taxes on broad layers of society. This triggered a general rebellion in a context of the health crisis, unemployment, poverty, and violence. USTRIAL, with a history of militant struggle and confrontation with the forces of law and order, participated in this process.
USTRIAL promoted popular assemblies in which Cartageneros in action could learn about the political situation and develop a collective response. USTRIAL generated support among the working-class neighborhoods of the industrial zone of Cartagena to blockade the industrial headquarters and in this way contribute working-class strength to the national strike that was taking place. And although the strike was dispersed by the armed forces of the state, the action demonstrated the initiative of the workers to boost their social strength and strengthen the uprising in the streets.
Today, USTRIAL represents more than 3000 SEATECH workers. It remains in a state of struggle against a bosses’ policy of slander, harassment, surveillance, and firing of its members. For socialists, USTRIAL is an expression of how to promote a combative and democratic trade unionism in the struggle to promote a militant workers’ movement. Just these past few weeks, USTRIAL has been providing support to a group of residents who are threatened with eviction from their homes by a construction company.
Top photo: Women workers in a tuna canning plant in Barranquilla, Colombia, near Cartagena.