Accompanied by her children and 25 fellow workers, strike leader Aidé Silva escorted our small U.S. labor delegation through an industrialized floriculture operation near Madrid, Colombia. Some 400 workers organized by the National Union of Flower Workers (Untraflores) began their strike on September 9. Only 35 strikers were on hand for the visit October 18, because, said Silva, it was Sunday.
Strikers were occupying the 100 - acre, plastic- enclosed Benilda Farm owned by the wealthy Mejia brothers of Cauca. Multinational corporations, notably Dole Food Company, own most of the 400 flower plantations near Bogota. Colombia exports 85 percent of its cut-flower production to the United States, which acquires 65 - 75 percent of all its flower imports from Colombia.
Colombian flower exporters, helped along by government subsidies and U.S. tariff exemptions, take in $1 billion annually. Colombia's export total to the United States came to $13.1 billion in 2008.
Three fourths of the Benilda strikers are women who have averaged 20 years of work there. In all, 200,000 Colombians work directly or indirectly in the flower industry. The lives of many are precarious because of poverty and displacement by paramilitaries and the army from land and homes elsewhere.
Aidé Silva and a handful of other women formed the Untraflores union in 2001 as an alternative to a company union - "the best thing we ever did," she said. Some 3000 of them work at Benilda and six nearby flower plantations. The Bendilda strikers complained of months with no wages and failure by the company to make mandated payments toward pensions, family subsidies, and health plans. The company also absconded with $800,000 in a worker savings plan, say the workers.
Extraordinary amounts of plastic piping and discarded spray equipment seen along long rows of roses and chrysanthemums betoken, said Silva, vanishing water reserves in the Bogota tableland and workers' toxic exposure to herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers.
The U.S. delegation heard later from Aura Rodriguez, head of Cactus Corporation, source of legal advice and advocacy for flower workers. She reported on rampant sexual exploitation, including advances from male bosses, employment denial because of pregnancy, and sterilization forced upon nine workers in 2007.
Aidé Silva said that media portrayal of workers as "loose women" and worker anxieties about providing for needy children exert intimidating effects on organizing." Wages of unionized flower workers approach $200 monthly.
The strike came about when the Mejia brothers closed down Benilda, dismissing some workers and transferring others elsewhere. Aidé Silva views that action as a ploy for facilitating industry-wide reorganization into other business entities. Owners dodge legal protections for workers' rights by forming dummy corporations specializing in recruitment of contract and temporary workers ripe for exploitation.
Downsizing served as pretext for the re-shuffle. The flower industry has contracted due to the world economic crisis, monetary fluctuations, inflation, and rising fuel and, allegedly, labor costs. Over 20,000 flower workers have lost jobs recently.
Under Colombian law, Benilda Company must use money derived from property sales to pay off obligations toward worker pensions and health benefits. The strikers are occupying Benilda to maintain facilities and preserve resale value so that pensions and health care can be funded. The courage of workers, who have gone months without pay, in retrieving a thin lifeline, seemed palpable what with powerful forces impinging on their lives and an immense, but abandoned, plasticized work world at hand.
Colombian labor unions have provided support along with the local Catholic Diocese. Community residents, most of them flower workers and displaced people, have responded to pleas from strikers at their doors. Aidé Silva cherishes a donation from Cauca sugar cane cutters whom Untraflores assisted last year during their successful strike.
Aidé Silva views the Colombian cut flower industry as a case study demonstrating potential beneficiaries and victims should Colombia and the United States institute a trade regimen beholden to trans-national corporations. She urged her visitors to join the international campaign against flower industry abuses. They should, for example, honor International Flower Workers' Day on Valentine's Day, a prime occasion for demonstrations, boycotts, and education programs,
Bidding farewell, Silva said that unity between North American and Latin American workers was essential for an end to imperialism. More information is available at www.untraflores.org.
Photo: Aidé Silva, left, and her family. W.T. Whitney/PW