Jun 19, 2017
The following article was translated from a leaflet put out by Combat Ouvrier, the revolutionary workers group of that name active on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique which are still run by France.
The banana workers have been on strike in more than 17 plantations around the districts of Capesterre-Belle-Eau and Saint Claude on Guadeloupe. The strike began on May 18. A mobilization this big hasn't been seen in more than 30 years. The victory of the strike at the plantation "Bois Debout" inspired the workers on the other plantations to strike as well. The workers at this plantation won between 10,000 and 20,000 euros each after a long trial and many strikes. The last finally forced the boss to carry out the decision of the court. The money won by the strikers was just part of the money the boss had stolen from them in a variety of ways.
Their strike picket line at the entrance to the plantation blocked or slowed the movement of cars on the national road to Capesterre. This brought the local governor around to oppose the béké bosses at the head of the banana lobby. Békés are the white plantation owners, descended from the old slave masters.
Right now, the workers at Bois Debout are not on strike, but they are supporting their comrades at other plantations. Those banana workers' demands include: sick pay, respect for the monthly minimum wage (SMIC), the payment of bonuses for seniority and for transportation, the immediate application of the law of 1978 that outlaws piece work, and the application of the conclusions of a report of an expert committee of hygiene, safety, and conditions of work on all the plantations.
A "chayè" is someone who carries the bananas, between six and seven tons every day, between 132 and 150 bunches on their shoulders. The workers who put on the "polys," the plastic that covers the bananas to protect them, walk 24 km (15 miles) in a day's work. And on top of that, they go up enough steps to climb the Eiffel Tower and come back down. The worker who cuts the bunches lifts the equivalent of 24 to 28 tons every day. And all this for salaries of 1000 to 1100 euros take-home per month.
These conditions of work cause pain, physical deformations, and arthritis. Workers are exposed to pesticides that cause long term sickness and premature death. Accidents at work regularly kill and maim people. At Bois Debout alone, 10 workers died in the last 25 years.
The békés like Dormoy (the family that owns Bois Debout) and others enriched themselves since the days of slavery on sugar cane and now on bananas by exploiting slave and now wage-worker blood. Their political leaders, the richest békés on Martinique, do the same in exploiting our brother farm workers on our sister island. Tino Dambas, a black planter who acts as a front for the békés, is no better.
On May 18th, the farm workers decided to go on strike for 48 hours. And finally, because of the determination of the 30 per cent of the workers who went on strike, they prolonged the strike to Monday, May 22, then Tuesday, May 23rd, and then made it an unlimited strike, renewable each day.
Saturday, May 20, 200 workers met in front of the town hall of Capesterre-Belle-Eau. Many workers from different plantations spoke about their terrible working conditions. Haitian immigrant workers, brothers in the struggle of our comrades from Guadeloupe, spoke as well. They moved the audience with the details they gave about the hellish working conditions they have endured for years.
Many others spoke: A committee set up to resist expulsions from a neighborhood; comrades from Combat Ouvrier; young high school students grouped around the newspaper Rebelle. Jean-Marie Nomertin, leader of the strike (secretary general of the CGTG, a union federation) made the concluding remarks. He called on all the workers to mobilize Monday, May 22 at 5:00 in the morning all around the plantations that line the national highway.
On that Monday, the police were in place to stop the workers from blocking the road. But 200 banana strikers (out of 800) were there.
Thursday, May 25, the strikers demanded a place to meet from the mayor of Capeterre Belle-Eau. At first he refused, but they demonstrated in the streets and got a hall for the first meeting of the strike committee.
Friday, May 26, more than 200 strikers demonstrated in the streets of Point-à-Pitre (the capital). Then they organized a press conference at the offices of the CGTG.
Monday the 29th, they demonstrated in Sainte Marie, on the national highway. The president of the region, Ary Chalus, met with the planters. They pretended to ignore the strike and said they didn't want to negotiate. But they started to feel the pressure of the strike: the containers weren't filled with bananas. The container trucks were sometimes forced to return to their starting points, once they caught sight of the strikers.
The workers elected a strike committee to lead the strike. Four workers per plantation were elected to the leadership of the committee. The committee directed the strike, but the continuation of the strike was voted every day by a general assembly of all the strikers. The committee brought every major decision about the conduct of the strike to the general assembly.
For years the planters have gotten enormous and regular subsidies from the European Union: 31.4 million euros each year from a program called POSEI (Program of Specific Options for the Distant Islands), and other subsidies regularly in case of damage (wind, cyclones, etc.). The region is also committed to giving 4,646,000 euros every year until 2022. When we speak of the profits taken from the direct exploitation of the workers, we must note that the planters could raise the wages, could pay what the workers demand: paid holidays, the end of unpaid overtime, and the long series of other embezzlements by the bosses. Retired banana workers get just 500 euros a month, one more sign of the level of exploitation.
In every company, the workers are inspired by the example of Bois Debout and the other plantations. The strikers at Bois Debout proved that they could get back part of their money. In every way, this is a good time to push for raises. Only the growth of the strike, a general movement, a general strike, can force the big bosses to raise wages. For example, why not 100 euros a month raise for everyone right away, in every company?