Case Study: Funafil workers’ 410-day occupation Guatemala, 1987–1988

IssueJune - July 2017
Feature by Karen Ridd

GOALS: To keep the owners from instituting a seven-day work week (owners were trying to add 12-hour mandatory Saturday and Sunday shifts – with no overtime pay)

On 9 June 1987, workers of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Lunafil (Lunafil Thread Factory Workers Union, or SITRALU) were given unwelcome news by management.

The Lunafil factory was located on the main highway in Amatitlan, just 15 miles from Guatemala City (capital of Guatemala). In that factory workers spun cotton grown on Guatemalan plantations into thread. The thread was then shipped to other factories for Guatemalan workers to use in sewing garments for export, the so-called maquiladoras.

Following an upgrade of machinery, management demanded that workers work regular additional 12-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays, with no overtime pay.
Unwilling to go from a five-day to a seven-day work week, union members decided to go on strike. 91 workers occupied the grounds within the chain-link-enclosed factory compound.

Recently the work force in a Guatemalan Coca-Cola factory had gone on a prolonged strike. 11 striking union members were murdered by government-backed ‘death squads’.

On 21 June, in the first week of the Lunafil campaign, two union leaders were arrested while handing out leaflets and imprisoned. Pressure from local and international unions obtained their release.

On 7 July, factory manager Leonel Barrios gave the workers an ultimatum. The gates to the factory were being locked. Armed guards from the Ebano Security company would be stationed inside the compound. Once all the workers had left the compound, the factory would re-open with new workers who would be required to work seven days a week.

“Women and children sat on the road, blocking the trucks, while the strikers sat inside the gate.”

Most of the workers remained. Management and guards engaged in threats and intimidation. The striking workers constructed temporary shelter and, when the owners cut off the supply of water, arranged for water and food to be brought to the factory. The strikers established a small cooking area and cooked enough food for the union members and their family members on the outside as well.

To ensure a continued presence outside the compound, the workers built a small black, plastic-and-wood shelter on the sidewalk. Each night, union leaders on the outside would take turns sleeping in the shelter, accompanied by members of Peace Brigades International.

Peace Brigades International (PBI) had begun operating in Guatemala in 1983. PBI is an international nongovernmental organisation committed to providing a nonviolent presence in places where local nonviolent activists are threatened and where internationals might serve to deter violence.

On the invitation of leaders of SITRALU, PBI provided protective accompaniment to the workers at the Lunafil factory 24 hours per day until the strike ended in July 1988.

Other international allies gave support, including unions from the US, Germany, Spain, France and Belgium.

By November 1987, only 39 occupiers were left, but these 39 then remained locked into their factory compound until the end of the 13-month (410-day) strike.

Gender reversals

The lengthy strike caused significant stress on families, including, in some cases, the loss of homes. Gender roles were altered: in families where the men had been the breadwinners, women now had to work outside the home. Needing childcare, they would pass the younger children over the fence each morning to their husbands on the ‘inside’, who cared for them during the day. Fathers cooked meals that they passed through the fence to their families in the evening.

On several occasions, shots were fired into the compound from passing vehicles. In May 1988, the makeshift sleeping structure outside the fence was attacked and demolished. Leaders received death threats.

On at least three occasions, semi-trailers arrived at the gates with the intention of entering the factory and taking out the remaining cotton. Union leaders on the outside contacted local media and nearby family members. Women and children sat on the road, blocking the trucks, while the strikers sat inside the chain link gate.

On at least two occasions, the combined pressure of the blockaders, the media, and international observers, served to deter the truckers. On a third occasion, however, with police intimidation, the cotton was removed.

Mixed victory

After more than a year of occupation, an accord was reached. Management agreed to reinstate the 24 union workers still occupying the plant and respect their contract.

However, when the plant reopened, additional workers were hired under different conditions, including membership in the Solidarista association rather than the union. New workers that attended union functions were reportedly fired; the union did not sign up any new members in the two years after the factory reopened.
Nevertheless, the union workers retained their union and succeeded in their refusal to work a seven-day week without overtime pay.

The strike itself was settled with an agreement signed on 20 July 1988. It was not, however, until 3 October 1988 that the returning strikers went back to work. In the period between 20 July and 3 October, the union still had to pressure management to completely fulfil the agreement they’d signed.