Russell Says Workers in Honduras Don’t Want to Exercise Their Associational Rights

To:Primary Contacts, WRC Affiliate Colleges and Universities
From:Scott Nova
Date:March 17, 2009
Re:Russell Says Workers in Honduras Don’t Want to Exercise Their Associational Rights

On Friday, March 13, Russell sent universities a link to a flyer entitled “The Other Side of the Story: The Facts About Russell Athletic in Honduras.” Russell’s pamphlet mainly rehashes claims the company has made in other communications. Virtually all of these claims have already been discredited (see, for example, the WRC’s communication to universities of March 6).

However, the flyer does include one assertion that requires comment, a statement that is extraordinarily disingenuous and that demonstrates outright hostility toward workers’ associational rights, as protected by university codes.

Russell states: “It is widely recognized that the situation in Honduras and most of Central America is frustrating for labor unions. Unionization is unpopular among workers, and the closure of a single unionized plant is viewed as a major setback by unions – the loss of a critical toehold. For that, Russell is being punished.” In other words, Russell’s explanation for the widespread condemnation of its violations of the right of freedom of association is that workers in Central America actually do not want to exercise this right – they don’t want to join unions – and that unions are therefore “frustrated” and are taking out their frustration on Russell.  

It is profoundly cynical to claim that unionization is “unpopular” among Central American workers without acknowledging the long and brutal history, and present reality, of anti-union repression in Honduras and throughout the region – including assassinations of trade unionists and other forms of violence. Illegal firings of union supporters, blacklisting, threats and intimidation, illegal anti-union factory closures, murders of union leaders and other tactics of repression have kept Central American factories virtually union-free for decades. In recent years, there has been another upsurge in anti-union violence, illegal firings and other forms of retaliation; yet despite this repressive environment, many workers continue to try to unionize in order to protect their rights and improve their wages and conditions of work.

The stark reality – recognized by the ILO, leading human rights organizations, the United States government, monitoring organizations (including the WRC and the FLA), and all other serious observers – is that Central American factories remain largely without unions not because “unionization is unpopular with workers,” but because factory operators use scorched earth tactics to terrorize workers and make unionization virtually impossible. Claiming that unions in Central America are frustrated in their organizing efforts because “unionization is unpopular among workers” is like saying there were no free elections in the Soviet Union because “voting was unpopular among Russians.” One cannot say that the exercise of a basic right is “unpopular,” when every attempt at it is met with harsh repression.

Unfortunately, Russell’s assertion is consistent with statements the company made last year after it illegally fired 145 unionists and used other tactics of reprisal and intimidation to try to stop workers from unionizing. When some workers responded to this campaign of repression by deciding it was too risky to openly support the union, Russell’s General Counsel claimed this was evidence that Russell’s Honduran workers don’t like working in a union environment. He then suggested the union should leave the factory.

There is a name for this sort of rhetoric: blaming the victim. It is difficult to think of a more cynical strategy by a company than using harsh and illegal repression to try to stop workers from exercising their associational rights, and then using the partial success of this repression to claim that workers never wanted to exercise their rights in the first place.

In light of Russell’s claim that it is being victimized by unions frustrated by their “unpopularity,” it is worth briefly reviewing some recent reports detailing what actually happens to workers in Honduras, and in the broader region, when they try to join unions:

From the InterPress News Service, reporting the release of a December 2008 Report by the ILO:Central America has become the world’s most dangerous region for trade unionists, due to the increase in threats, torture, disappearances and murders, says a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).These practices, absent from the region for a time, have reappeared, trampling on the rights of organised workers, the report indicates. Freedom of association and collective bargaining have ‘deteriorated since 2002; Central America heads the list of the world’s most dangerous regions for engaging in union activities,’ said Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, an ILO senior specialist on workers’ activities… Anti-union discrimination (dismissals and restrictions on union organising and collective bargaining) and attempts against workers’ lives are among the most serious violations…”

From a 2008 report by the labor rights group USLEAP“Violence against trade unionists in Central America has surged this year, with at least four trade union-related murders and a gang rape in Guatemala since the beginning of 2008, a top union leader murdered in Honduras in April, and a union leader shot to death in Panama in February.”

From the US State Department’s Human Rights Report on Honduras (2008):

“The law provides for the right to organize and to bargain collectively, but the government did not protect this right in practice…Although the law prohibits employer retribution for engaging in trade union activity, it was a common practice with employers threatening to close unionized companies and harassing or dismissing workers seeking to unionize. Some foreign companies closed operations when notified that workers sought union representation. . . . Although the law prohibits blacklisting, there was credible evidence that apparel assembly factory employers blacklisted employees seeking to form unions. . . . Some employers informed previously unionized workers that they were unemployable because of their previous union activity.”

“In March the original members of the SitraFHIA union were fired without reason and then reinstated by Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Investment (FHIA). In the following months, 13 more unionists were similarly dismissed without cause…In October SitraFHIA was broken by FHIA management with nine of the last affiliates [resigning] on October 1, leaving only the president and two members. FHIA allegedly paid the affiliates to renounce union membership and return under new nonunion contracts.”

“On February 8, 60 unionists of the Alcoa Factory were unlawfully dismissed. The workers were eventually reinstated…In July Alcoa Inc. announced it would cease operations at maquila plants in El Progreso and Choloma, and on August 22, Alcoa closed those plants and dismissed all 1,800 workers. On September 12, the Alcoa plant union leader, Lorna Jackson, received death threats in the form of text messages and was shot at by two unidentified men. At year’s end Jackson remained in hiding. . . .”

“On May 12, the Honduran Women’s Collective filed a report citing the Productos San Jose textile factory in San Pedro Sula for human rights and labor law violations; it outlined a systematic covering up of work-related health and injury reports.” [Productos San Jose is owned and operated by Russell and Fruit of the Loom]

“…Earlier in the year, workers were fired from Jerzees Choloma without reason” [Jerzees Choloma is the other unionized Russell factory that closed last year].

“In October SITRAJERZEES, the newly registered union at [Jerzees de Honduras] in Choloma, was in the midst of its first collective bargaining negotiations when management broke off negotiations and declared that the plant would close within six months. Workers alleged that management had made more than 100 threats to union members, indicating the plant would close if the union was formed.”

 “Union leaders [in Honduras] were occasionally subjected to violence and threats. On May 23, Julio Paz killed Israel Garcia, leader of the National Association of Honduran Farmworkers (ANACH) labor group. The killing was motivated by a National Agrarian Institute land-use ruling favorable to ANACH. On April 23, unknown masked assailants shot to death Altagracia Fuentes, secretary general for the Honduran Workers’ Federation, and two companions, labor leader Yolanda Sanchez, and their driver, Juan Bautista Aceituno…”

The reports excerpted above provide a clear illustration of why associational rights are not exercised more broadly and openly by workers in Honduras and throughout Central America.

As the largest private employer in Honduras, Russell is well aware of this stark reality – and, indeed, has been a significant part of the problem, as evidenced by the fact that three of the five businesses cited by name as worker rights abusers in the most recent US Human Rights Report on Honduras are owned and operated by Russell. Ignorance is clearly not the reason for the outlandish claims in the company’s flyer. What these claims instead reflect is that the company is not being honest with the university community and is not yet willing to accept responsibility for its actions.

Instead, Russell wants universities to believe that it is the real victim. According to the company, the widespread concern in the university community about the company’s labor practices has arisen not because Russell illegally fired 145 trade union supporters at Jerzees Choloma and Jerzees de Honduras; not because Russell made false claims about the reason for those firings; not because Russell systematically threatened, harassed and intimidated union supporters month after month in the period before the closure of Jerzees de Honduras; and not because the WRC and ILO expert Adrian Goldin documented in painstaking detail that anti-union hostility was a reason for the closure. According to Russell, what’s really going on is that union leaders are victimizing an innocent company due to their “frustration” at the “unpopularity” of unions in Central America.

More than anything else, Russell’s cynical rhetoric reveals the company’s continuing hostility toward workers’ exercise of their associational rights, which is the crux of the problem.

As always, please let us know if you have any thoughts or questions about this information.

Scott Nova
Worker Rights Consortium
5 Thomas Circle NW
Washington DC 20005
ph 202 387 4884
fax 202 387 3292
[email protected]