Organizing in the Face of Murder

an interview with Julio Garcia Prieto

JULIO GARCIA PRIETO, General Secretary of the Union of the Coffee Industry of El Salvador (SICAFE), recently toured the United States talking to churches, labor unions, and other groups about the difficulties faced by the members of his union as they try to organize in the face of severe repression, including many murders When the tour came to Cincinnati on June 16, writer Dan La Botz had an opportunity to interview Garcia for Against the Current. The interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated and edited by La Botz.

A note of explanation on coffee processing: Agricultural workers who actually pick the coffee (they say “cut” the coffee) are mostly housewives and students and are not legally permitted to organize unions and do not have labor unions. These workers go to the fields to cut the cafe uva (grape coffee) from the palo de cafe (or the coffee tree) for about three months each year.

During this harvest time many workers are also employed by the industrial plants (known as benefidos). Being industrial workers they are legally allowed to organize and many belong to SICAFE. The green coffee beans (cafe uva) are then dried and become cafe pergamino (parchment coffee), at which point they can be warehoused for some time until orders are place This completes the first stage of the process.

During the second stage of the process the cafe pergamino is husked and becomes cafe oro (gold coffee) ready for shipment abroad. This second stage employs many fewer workers.

ATC: What brings you to the United States?

Julio Garcia Prieto: I have been invited here by a union group to talk about the coffee workers’ working conditions and living conditions, and the repression.

ATC: Tell us a little, please about the coffee industry and the union. How many coffee workers are there in El Salvador? How many in the union? Do you have contracts with the companies?

J.G.: The union was founded when several local unions joined together on September 23, 1961. We organize the workers employed in the industrial plants complete with all the machinery and warehouses to process coffee. There are about 35,000 coffee workers in El Salvador, and about 20,000 of them are affiliated with our union.

But perhaps I should clarify that those 20,000 members are not working all the time in the plants. Most of these workers are only employed during the period when the greatest hiring takes place, during the period when the cafe uva is processed. That’s when there is massive hiring of workers. During that period the plant works three shifts. Our constitution divides our members into two classes: active members who are employed and inactive members who are laid off or fired.

ATC: What percentage of the union are women? And is there child labor?

J.G.: About 45 percent of the union’s members are women, 55 percent men. These women work cleaning the coffee for processing. In industrial plants the legal minimum age is fifteen years of age.

ATC: Are women in the union leadership?

J.G.: Today, in the National Executive Board there are three women, out of 11 members. They are also on the local executive boards, though so far none has ever been elected the general secretary of a local or the national union.

ATC: Do you have collective bargaining agreements with the companies?

J.G.: We have collective bargaining agreement with at least seven processing and exporting companies. About 7/)00 workers are covered by our contracts.

ATC: How muck does a coffee worker earn in El Salvador?

J.G.: There are practically speaking two salaries scales for coffee workers. First, we who are covered by the union contract earn thirty colones and fifty centavos, which is about four dollars at the present exchange rate for eight hours work per day. Second, other places and plants where there is no union, pay eighteen colones per day or about two dollars.

ATC: These are really incredibly low wages.

J.G.: Yes, look, the last investigation into the standard of living said that in order to have a nice life in terms of food, housing, education, health, it was necessary to earn at least 2,000 colones monthly. But we are earning only an average of 800 colones, that is the union workers.

ATC: It’s a wonder people can survive.

J.G.: And considering that we work in the coffee industry, which is the main source of income for the country, the workers’ conditions are very, very difficult. The workers have to do miracles with their salaries. Many of the coffee plants are in small towns in rural areas, and some of the workers may rent a small piece of land where they grow corn, beans or rice. They get off work at four and go to work tilling their fields. Some of our members sell sandwiches or other things on the weekends. Everyone tries to get by somehow.

ATC: Who owns the coffee plants? Are they Salvadoran?

J.G.: They belong to agro-industrial plants, they belong to Salvadorans. But they are people who arrived in the country sometime ago, most of the owners or their parents were from other countries. It is rare to see the owner of a plant with the complexion of a Latino. There are Hollanders, Americans, Italians…. That’s the rule.

ATC: Is the industry at present stable and profitable?

J.G.: Yes, the coffee industry is the most stable industry in the country. One of the great advantages they have is that in order to maintain their plants they don’t have to import machinery, because all of the machinery is produced in El Salvador. They never have problems losing money, they’re always earning.

ATC: What kind of difficulties do you face as a labor organizer in El Salvador?

J.G.: There are many difficulties. The first, of course, is the low salary and the bad living conditions, bad conditions which arise from not having one’s own house. Ninety percent of our members do not own their own home. A very small number live in housing provided by the company, but most of our members rent. The wages only allow people to get by.

Then are the difficulties in getting a small wage increase. Talking, demanding just to get an increase of a colon and fifty centavos as happened in the last negotiation that we had in December of 1989.

Another difficulty that we have, in addition to having bad working conditions and low wages, is tremendous repression from the government and the companies themselves. As a result of this repression to this date we have had forty-five members assassinated. Several of those killed have been women. The last woman killed was Sonya Flores, who was killed in November 1988. The spouses and children of the workers who are killed also suffer. The women I mentioned had three children.

Many union members are also kidnapped, and some have been tortured. We also have three members who disappeared in 1986.

ATC: Who killed them? And why?

J.G.: Look, first, in El Salvador the usual thing is for it to be done by heavily armed men dressed in civilian clothes. To this date no one has been tried for any of these assassinations. Last year we presented to the legislature a series of petitions about all of the repression we had suffered, but there was no response.

When they assassinated a companero on May 11, 1989, we presented to the Attorney General a demand, together with the family members, that he investigate the murder. There was no response. The problem in El Salvador is that whatever happens, no one is punished.

ATC: So the judicial branch of government doesn’t really work for the worker in El Salvador?

J.G.: No. No, on the contrary, it is the government which represses people.

ATC: How can peopie go on being involved in the union in this situation?

J.G.: There are very difficult decisions to make. You have to sit down and talk it over with your family. You have to decide whether or not you want to do it Whether or not you still think it is the right thing to do. One of the officers of one of our local unions, Alan Chacon, was captured and tortured, and then his local union had an election, and he was re-elected to the executive board.

ATC: Have you personally been threatened?

J.G.: No, but we know that life in El Salvador is threatened. Arid the last three cornpenetvs that they captured in January of this year were asked where I live.

ATC: How does the repression affect the union as an organization?

J.G.: We have had eighteen of our union locals destroyed.

ATC: When you say the locals were destroyed, what do you mean? How was it done?

J.G.: One of the maneuvers they use is that they fire all the workers. Then they hire new workers, so they continue production, but now with non-union workers, whom they can pay even lower wages and benefits and treat even worse.

The plants have foremen and supervisors who are in charge of making sure that there are informers among the workera. If they say someone is a union member, then they fire them right then. That union person now has no job and no wages, is on a black list, and the minute he goes to work for another plant, he’ll be fired.

ATC: Given this situation, are you able to maintain an office and function as a union?

J.G.: Look, we have an office, but the very political situation in the country does not permit one to maintain a stable office. We have an office, and depending on how we see the security issue given the situation at the moment, we use it, but if we see something suspicious, a lot of people keeping watch, then we change to another place. This is a big problem because we have to move all the equipment necessary to run an office.

The situation of the country does not permit you to have a completely open life. You establish an office, and they put on the surveillance, and when one least expects it, they penetrate, and they kidnap someone, or they accusations that you have arms or explosives. So you have to take these measures.

ATC: To turn to another topic. Is SICAFE affiliated with any federations? And are those federations affiliated with any political organizations?

J.G.: We are members of FENASTRAS since about 1975, and FENASTRAS is affiliated with UNTS (National Unity of Salvadoran Workers). In El Salvador the Labor Code itself prohibits federations from being politically affiliated.

In the last few years our union has given a lot of support to the struggles of the workers We have participated in the majority of the marches and rallies, and in seven strikes since 1985, some over contracts, others to support other workers who were on strike. For example, when FENASTRAS was bombed and various workers were killed, we participated in an eight hour strike in = solidarity and in protest of the attack Our union has been very involved in all of the activities of the popular movement.

ATC: Are you currently engaged in a campaign?

J.G.: We are getting ready for October when the new collective bargaining agreement with the companies comes up. And we’re getting ready for our union convention September 23, 1990, this year Our new executive board will be elected there.

ATC: Will you be making any special demands in the next contract?

jG.: One of the principal demands will be a salary increase. But we also intend to put forward a demand for a health program for the workers, a medical clinic. Another demand we consider important is that the companies really respect our contracts. Enforcement of the contract is very important too.

November-December 1990, ATC 29