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United Fruit Company Strike

United Fruit Company Strike

Colombia 1928

Synopsis

In 1928 workers in the Colombian banana zone in the Department of Magdalena went on strike against the United Fruit Company. Workers in the region had been organizing for a decade, creating unions such as the Unión Sindical de Trabajadores del Magdalena (USTM). In 1928 the leaders of the USTM presented the company with a list of demands that ranged from wage increases to the abolition of company stores. When the company refused to meet these demands, the workers went on strike in November 1928. With the strike unresolved in early December, the government sent in army troops who massacred hundreds and perhaps thousands of strikers who were peacefully gathering for a march in the town of Ciénaga. The massacre, made famous in novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez, had profound political consequences in Colombia, as it damaged the reputation of the ruling Conservative Party and contributed to a victory by the Liberal Party in the 1930 elections.

Timeline

  • 1914: On the Western Front, the first battles of the Marne and Ypres establish a line that will more or less hold for the next four years.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles signed by the Allies and Germany, but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1924: In the United States, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, along with oil company executives Harry Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, is charged with conspiracy and bribery in making fraudulent leases of U.S. Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The resulting Teapot Dome scandal clouds the administration of President Warren G. Harding.
  • 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh makes the first successful solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic and becomes an international hero.
  • 1929: The Lateran Treaty between the Catholic Church and Mussolini's regime establishes the Vatican City as an independent political entity.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.
  • 1929: Edwin Hubble proposes a model of an ever-expanding universe.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1933: Newly inaugurated U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt launches the first phase of his New Deal to put depression-era America back to work.
  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1944: Creation of International Monetary Fund and World Bank at Bretton Woods Conference.

Event and Its Context

The Creation of the United Fruit Company

The United Fruit Company was one of the first large multinational corporations to operate in the Western Hemisphere. The company was formed in the late nineteenth century, and by 1910 the "great white fleet" of United Fruit had more than 100 steamers that shipped goods from Latin American countries. United Fruit had several positive effects on Latin America. The company built hospitals, schools, and ports. It constructed water and sanitation facilities. The company also operated hundreds of miles of railroads in the region. United Fruit's business activities created jobs and generated tax revenue.

At the same time, United Fruit also had numerous negative effects in the region, and for many in Latin America, the company would soon come to represent the economic imperialism of the United States. United Fruit owned hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Latin America, of which only a small portion was actually cultivated. The company did not abide competition and often ruined rival planters. United Fruit management sometimes became involved in politics, bribing officials and even helping to overthrow governments. United Fruit generally opposed organized labor and exploited consumers.

The United Fruit Company in Colombia

United Fruit became involved in Colombia after 1900, particularly in the Department of Magdalena around the city of Santa Marta. The company's purpose there was to produce bananas for the international market. In 1901 the company exported about 250,000 bunches of bananas from Santa Marta; by 1929 it exported 10 million bunches, making Colombia the third largest banana producer after Jamaica and Honduras.

Once a sparsely populated area, the banana zone began to attract workers once United Fruit arrived. At first the company tried to import workers from the Caribbean. When this failed, the company began to offer wages that were higher than those found in most of the rest of the country. These wages led to internal migration, with some 90,000 workers arriving in the region by 1928. Soon a large, landless proletariat existed in the banana zone. Most workers performed their jobs on a piece-work basis through a labor contracting system. The company employed relatively few workers directly, which allowed United Fruit to ignore issues such as social security laws. At the same time, most workers were paid in scrip that was redeemable only at company stores. The situation caused resentment against the company among many workers.

Early Labor Organization in the Banana Zone

The 1928 strike against the United Fruit Company was the culmination of increasing worker organization in the banana zone. The first significant wave of labor activity in the region came between 1918 and 1920. The end of World War I had brought with it a revival of trade. As early as 1918, workers in the banana zone struck, affecting United Fruit plantations, its railroad operation, and its banana shipments. In the early 1920s United Fruit workers formed "Workers' Societies" to negotiate with the company. In 1924 dockworkers in the region called a strike and attempted to form a union. However, the government called in the military and declared the action illegal, forcing the workers to abandon their attempt to organize. Later, some 3,000-4,000 workers joined the Sociedad Unión, a union associated with the company. Members of this organization agreed not to make demands on the company.

The Creation of the USTM

Many of those who joined the Sociedad Unión also joined the Unión Sindical de los Trabajadores del Magdalena (USTM). Several Italian and Spanish immigrants who had been influenced by anarcho-syndicalism formed this new union in 1926. This organization was independent of company control and could make demands on United Fruit, unlike the Sociedad Unión. The USTM not only organized the workers in the city of Santa Marta, but also the agricultural workers who labored on the plantations. It also attempted to establish links with workers elsewhere in the country.

Two important changes took place in 1928. First, in April and August, dock and railroad workers received wage increases from United Fruit. These gains increased the prestige of the USTM and gave workers more confidence in their union. A second important development was that the leadership of the USTM had been taken over by socialists from the Partido Socialista Revolucionaria (PSR), which was the Colombian section of the Third International. Led by Raúl Mahecha and Alberto Castrillón, the PSR was an umbrella organization for unions and peasant leagues from the region and would play a leading role in the events of 1928.

Planning the 1928 Strike

Mahecha and Castrillón, along with JoséRusso, formed the USTM's executive committee, which began planning the activities to be taken against the United Fruit Company as the union gained support among the workers. In October 1928 Mahecha drew up a petition with a list of demands that the USTM would present to the company. These demands included social security for the workers, the right to collective bargaining, wage increases, and the abolition of the hated company stores. On 6 October delegates at a plenary session accepted the demands. On 28 October the union presented the demands to the company, which rejected them. In the meantime, on 19 October some 30 union members were arrested during a meeting. Despite such repression, the union moved forward, especially after a local labor inspector declared that the demands were within the law.

The 1928 Strike

The USTM leadership then declared a strike for 11 November. Some 30,000 workers participated in the strike. Picketing workers disrupted transportation in the region. Despite the fact that authorities had arrested some 400 workers by the end of November, the strikers succeeded in preventing trains of strikebreakers from reaching their destinations. The strike greatly affected the company's operations, as this was the time of the year's second major harvest. United Fruit Company ships were forced to go to Jamaica to acquire cargoes. Unable to attract enough strikebreakers, the company even offered to pay the workers for the days they missed during the strike if they would return to work.

Tensions increased in December, as national troops arrived and the Colombian president assigned General Carlos Cortés Vargas to bring the situation under control. On 3 December the armed forces posted notices that regulations regarding public order would be more strictly enforced. Troops shot one worker who attempted to remove one of the notices. On 4 December strikebreakers left Santa Marta under armed escort. Picketing workers blocked many of the strikebreakers, although the replacement workers did cut some bananas on the plantations.

On the night of 4 December, the striking workers met in the town of Ciénaga to plan a march to Santa Marta in order to present their demands to the governor and the company. The USTM urged workers to gather in Ciénaga on 5 December. That afternoon, the USTM executive committee received a message that company and government officials were on their way to Ciénaga to agree to the strikers' demands. When they later learned that the officials were not coming, the gathering crowd grew angry and even took over one of the company trains that had been used to transport strikebreakers. A spontaneous rally occurred. The workers insisted that the planned march would indeed take place. In the meantime, thousands of men, women, and children gathered in the square in front of the train station in Ciénaga.

The Massacre

At about midnight, the military arrived in Ciénaga. General Cortés Vargas had received a declaration of a state of siege from Bogotáand brought his troops to confront the strikers. Armed troops lined the square while Cortés Vargas read the state of siege declaration and ordered the crowd to disperse. The workers refused and Cortés Vargas repeated his order. When the crowd still refused to disperse, the general gave the order to fire. The troops killed many in the crowd, and the survivors fled the scene.

It is unclear exactly how many people died in the confrontation. When government officials arrived in the morning, there were only eight bodies in the square. Decades later, however, a mass grave was discovered near the sight. Rumors indicated that many corpses had been loaded on trains, taken to the coast, and dumped into the sea. Newspaper accounts of the incident reported that several hundred people perished. Survivors of the massacres estimate the number of dead at about 2,000.

Clashes between workers and troops continued for several days as the strikers sought a measure of revenge. The state of siege continued, and civil liberties were suspended. Soon, the worker organization was destroyed. In January and February 1929 military tribunals tried more than 100 strikers. These tribunals convicted 30 workers and sentenced them to between four months and 25 years in prison, although some sentences were later commuted.

Despite the harshness with which the strike ended, the workers did gain some concessions from the company. United Fruit agreed to a gradual increase in wages, although no time frame was set. The company also promised to build hospitals and schools, as well as to improve the sanitation of worker housing.

The Political Consequences of the Strike and Massacre

The massacre of the striking banana workers had important political consequences in Colombia. The event served to discredit the ruling Conservative Party in the eyes of many Colombians. In particular, Liberal Party member Jorge Eliécer Gaitán used the massacre to paint the Conservative government as a mere puppet of United States capitalism that would even kill its own people to satisfy foreign investors. In 1930 the Liberal Party won the presidential elections after 30 years of Conservative rule. Gaitán himself used the events to increase his own political popularity, although his career was cut short when he was assassinated in 1948.

Key Players

Castrillón, Alberto: A printer from Bogotá, Castrillón was a member of the Partido Socalista Revolucionaria (PSR) and one of the key leaders of the 1928 strike against United Fruit. After a trip to Moscow in early 1928, he returned to Colombia, where he was arrested in July of that year. Castrillón was released in August and ordered to leave the country. However, he stayed to work with the Unión Sindical de Trabajadores del Magdalena (USTM). After the 1928 strike, he was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Gaitán, Jorge Eliécer (1898-1948): Colombian politician who rose to fame by attacking the Conservative Party's handling of the 1928 strike against the United Fruit Company. A member of the opposition Liberal Party, he made numerous speeches criticizing the Conservative government's willingness to kill its own people so as to protect the interests of a foreign company. Gaitán's efforts helped his Liberal Party win the 1930 elections. Gaitán himself ran for president in 1946 but lost because of a split in his party. He was assassinated in 1948.

Mahecha, Raúl (1884-1940): The son of a lawyer, Mahecha spent his life organizing Colombian workers. He played a key role in the 1911 strike movement among the transport workers on the Magdalena River. He was also the leader of a 1924 strike in Barrancebermeja. In April 1928 he was arrested for planning a strike in the banana zone but was later released. He then was one of the main organizers of the 1928 strike against United Fruit.

Bibliography

Books

Brungardt, Maurice P. "The United Fruit Company in Colombia." In Henry C. Dethloff and C. Joseph Pusateri, American Business History: Case Studies. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1987.

Gómez, Alfredo. Anarquismo y anarcosindicalismo en América Latina. Barcelona, Spain: Ibérica de Ediciones y Publicaciones, 1980.

LeGrand, Catherine. "Living in Macondo: Economy andCulture in a United Fruit Company Banana Enclave in Colombia." In Gilbert Joseph, et al., Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

McGreevey, William. An Economic History of Colombia,1845-1930. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Randall, Stephen J. Colombia and the United States:Hegemony and Interdependence. Athens, GA, and London: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Rippy, J. Fred. The Capitalists and Colombia. New York:The Vanguard Press, 1931.

Safford, Frank, and Marco Palacios. Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

White, Judith. The United Fruit Company in the Santa Marta Banana Zone, Colombia: Conflicts of the '20s. Ph.D. Dissertation, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Periodicals

LeGrand, Catherine. "Colombian Transformations: Peasants and Wage Laborers in the Santa Marta Banana Zone." The Journal of Peasant Studies 11, no. 4 (1984): 178-200.

—Ronald Young

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