The AFL-CIO this Wednesday, June 25, will present its annual human rights award to thousands of Firestone rubber plantation workers in war-torn Liberia who, with strategic help from the United Steelworkers, are building a union movement against great odds.
The George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award recognizes the 4,000-member Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) for its “extraordinary courage, strength and solidarity” in representing oppressed workers at one of the world’s largest rubber plantations.
The 2007 Meany-Kirkland Award, the labor federation’s highest honor, will be presented during a reception at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., to Austin Natee, the president of FAWUL, and Edwin Cosco, FAWUL’s secretary general. The union also will be honored next week at the United Steelworkers' Constitutional Convention in Las Vegas.
To see a video about the Liberian workers' story called "A New Day," click here.
Past recipients of the Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award include such heroic figures as Wellington Chibebe, the leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions; imprisoned Nigerian trade union leader Frank Kokori; Muchtar Pakpahan of the Indonesia Labor Welfare Union (SBSI); Han Dongfang, China’s independent worker-leader; Ela Bhatt, founder of India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA); and most recently, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in honor of journalists around the world who were killed on the job.
Election a milestone
On July 7 last year, for the first time in the 82-year existence in Liberia of the Firestone Natural Rubber Co., workers elected union leaders in a free and fair election. Last December, the Liberian Supreme Court ruled that the July election was legitimate.
Voting was monitored by international observers, including representatives of the USW and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, which provides technical assistance and support to workers and unions around the world.
The workers joined together to improve pay and living and working conditions. Management routinely violates basic workers’ rights.
Rubber tappers work 14 hours a day and must tap 750 rubber trees and accumulate 150 pounds of latex daily—all for little more than $3 a day and a monthly 100-pound bag of subsidized rice if quotas are met. . Tappers carry the loaded buckets on their shoulders for miles to collection stations.
Dry rubber is used by Bridgestone-America’s tire plants throughout North America in the manufacture of tires. Latex is sold to other manufacturers for use in adhesives, carpet backing and other goods.
The union election was a milestone in Liberia’s transition to fledgling democracy from a long civil war that
decimated the country and the 240-square-mile plantation.
“We’ve witnessed and participated in historic changes at the Firestone plantation over the past 2 ½ years,” said Mike Zielinski, a USW staff representative who has instructed plantation union members on union democracy, methods of building solidarity and how to take strategic actions when necessary.
“Given the level of resistance that the Firestone workers have encountered at every stage of their journey, we know there’s harder struggle ahead,’’ he added. “But these workers, boosted and strengthened by support from the USW and the Solidarity Center, are determined to change the world.”
FAWUL gives major credit for its success to the direct support, training and solidarity actions shown by the USW and the Solidarity Center.
Solidarity a two-way street
Recognizing that solidarity is a two-way street, Liberian union officials have pledged that they will, if necessary, initiate action at the plantation in support of future USW contract campaigns with Bridgestone Firestone in North America.
The USW involvement started with a fact-finding delegation to the West African country in 2005 led by International Vice President Fred Redmond, then an assistant director in District 7. In 2006, workers set up an “Aggrieved Workers Committee’’ with USW support that demanded new union leadership and better treatment from Firestone.
Through a series of wildcat strikes the workers succeeded in getting the government of Liberia to require the new elections. During the strikes, workers were intimidated and beaten. Several, tragically, were killed.
Workers turned out in record numbers to elect the union leaders when the vote was held last summer. Then they engaged in a sustained political campaign to win union recognition, which culminated in the landmark decision by the Liberian Supreme court.
Contract surveys conducted
Last fall, with guidance from the USW, the new union organized a comprehensive survey of its members in 90 work camps scattered throughout the plantation. The survey provided the union with a huge amount of information to prepare bargaining proposals.
Zielinski returned to Liberia in February with Harmon Lisnow, former director of the Institute for Career Development, to conduct union-building workshops with 120 stewards and campaign strategy sessions with the FAWUL negotiating committee
Our team also met with the Liberian Minister of Labor, the Liberian Labor Congress and Save My Future Foundation, a non-governmental organization that has investigated abuses of workers’ rights at Firestone. The group also conducted organizing workshops with Mittal Steel, which mines iron ore in Liberia, and with workers at a major tourist hotel
During a welcoming ceremony featuring government ministry officials, trade union leaders and our delegation, FAWUL presented its contract proposal to Feay Roberts, Firestone’s unpopular industrial relations manager.
“He was in a state of shock at that point,’’ Zielinski said of Roberts. “In all previous negotiations, Firestone has dictated the terms of the agreement. In that moment, management’s world was turned upside down.”
Far-reaching changes sought
The union’s collective bargaining proposal calls for far-reaching changes including significantly boosting the current wage of about 42 cents an hour for an eight-hour day. Typically, though, tappers earn less per hour because they work longer hours to meet quotas.
The union is calling for a new pay system based on hourly work and including overtime pay that would break from the existing quota system.
FAWUL is also seeking mechanized transportation so tappers don’t have to carry the latex for miles to collection stations, or bonus pay based on the distance that tappers do haul the buckets.
The union also wants substantial housing improvements including electricity, running water and flush toilets that could be phased in over several years and bus transportation or allowances so more children may attend school.
“Real collective bargaining is now taking place. For the first time in the plantation’s history, the union has given the company a ground-breaking collective bargaining proposal, unlike in the past when the company simply dictated the terms of wages and working conditions,’’ the USW’s Redmond said.
“These men and women in Liberia are among the bravest people I have ever known,” he added. “Now that they have established a truly democratic union, with the solidarity they have shown, they can begin to reap some of the fruits of their labors. USW members are proud to have contributed to that.”