San Pedro Sula In a little more than two hours from Houston, I landed at the smallish airport of this city of almost a million which is the second largest in Honduras and the industrial capital of the country. The Sula Valley is dotted with one huge fenced and barbed wired maquila plant after another, mostly specializing in textiles. These plants rise out of bucolic scenes filled with huge stands of bananas, sugar cane, pineapples, and other products of the industrial farming operations of Chiquita, Standard Brands and the like which have played big roles in the fertile and humid countryside around this area for a century.
Suyapa Amador, ACORN International’s head organizer in Mexico, had put together a lot of different meetings so that we could assess whether to it was practical to partner with other organizations, hire organizers, and open and office in Honduras. Sitting around the table before opening of a restaurant owned by the mayor of Villanueva, a town of 100,000 some 20 kilometers from San Pedro Sula and enjoying a delicious parrillada with her, it was surprising to hear her concern that there was simply no public health facilities that were accessible anywhere in her district. Passionate conversation around the table revealed that the only public hospital in fact in the whole region serving a huge part of the country was an overburden and inaccessible facility in San Pedro Sula. If you were rich there were three or four “doctor’s” hospitals, but many died just trying to get to the one public operation.
In the evening as television sets all blared a state ceremony for the newly elected politicians following the controversial election and undemocratic coup of the elected President, we were meeting with more than a dozen men and women who were union organizers and leaders in San Pedro Sula and the neighboring districts in the evening at the Gran Hotel Sula in the center of the city which joined the Cathedral and other landmarks abutting the central square and park. I listened to one expansive story after another about the difficulties faced in organizing workers, which is common whenever union folks get together, but there was a different twist to these discussions. None of them were really talking about problems that their own unions faced, as much as they were talking about the terrible working conditions, low wages, and constant abuse for workers in the maquilas, the ubiquitous fabrication plants that filled the city and countryside. Suyapa had them speak one after another. Many told of strikes. Others of the young women forced to take birth control to work there. Others of injuries and health risks. All of the fact that none of the workers had any human rights on the job.
It took me a while to finally understand that in Honduras where these brothers and sisters worked with unions, unions had been outlawed in the maquilas in order to attract the foreign capital and work. Workers could – and did – organize, but the unions they built could not be legally recognized thanks to the Honduran Congress and obviously the stated desire of the maquila operators many of which are from Korea and other countries chasing the work to the bottom. Here they pay about $250 per month for workers.
To great laughter all of the unionists told long and vivid stories of being redbaited and called communists for simply being union organizers trying to respond to workers who wanted unions. We all laughed because in that sense there was no difference at least between being in Honduras and being in the United States.