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Sender: owner-imap@webmap.missouri.edu
Date: Sat, 18 Oct 97 10:57:18 CDT
From: scott@rednet.org (Peoples Weekly World)
Subject: Haitian labor leader appeals for solidarity
Organization: Scott Marshall
Article: 20184

Haitian labor leader appeals for solidarity

By Stan Goff, Peoples Weekly World,
18 October 1997

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - "Our class structure in Haiti is complex," she said. "But the simple fact is that the poor are considered to be animals by the rich." Yannick Etienne, born in the Northern port of Cap Haitian, Haiti, has lived most of her life in the capital city, Port-au-Prince. She has lived a life of comparative advantage - upper middle class by that country's standard, and educated.

Etienne chose to side with workers and has used her familiarity with the culture of the elite to advocate for the exploited. Three years ago she organized Batay Ouvriye (Creole for Workers Struggle), an umbrella labor organization that is attempting to wrest control of organized labor from the traditional unions, which she describes as "opportunistic and co-opted." She visited Chapel Hill on Oct. 7, hosted by the Venerable Joe Straley of Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America (CITCA).

Her trip on behalf of Batay Ouvriye was intended to "begin linking the American and the Haitian worker. I am here to appeal for solidarity. We are touching base with American workers to emphasize that we must join hands to defeat a monster."

Etienne emphasized that monster is capitalism itself. "We are conscious that capitalism cannot be reformed in Haiti, where the devastation of capitalism has been so strongly felt. Our appeal for solidarity is an international appeal to fight this monstrous system."

Batay Ouvriye combines overt and underground organizing. The organization has established a workers center in Port- au-Prince that provides legal services, organizational support, parliamentary lobbyists and weekly debates for the purpose of enhancing the political consciousness of workers.

Batay Ouvriye began collecting information on the companies in Haiti by encouraging workers, who earn around two dollars a day, to smuggle out the labels they were sewing into garments. The labels were then used to identify the corporations' wholesale and retail outlets in the United States, in order to target those companies for consumer action.

Haiti's labor codes require at least twelve members in any shop to be card carriers if a union is to be recognized. On the other hand, given the government inability and lack of will to enforce labor codes, retaliation by firing is common.

Batay Ouvriye has developed a "bench strategy," based on a soccer team (the most popular sport in Haiti). In any situation, the union will identify only twelve members. If three are fired, three others will come forward to replace them. This applies the brakes to union-busting through intimidation, and allows the workers time to continue organizing.

One of the hot-button issues in Haiti is privatization of Haiti's publicly-owned enterprises. One was sold a week prior to Etienne's visit and 48,000 workers were immediately dropped from the employment rolls.

She said that one of the principle goals of Batay Ouvriye is to help workers understand the pitfalls presented by international finance capital's structural adjustment programs. Most Haitians understand and oppose privatization, but Etienne is convinced that by connecting the issues of export agriculture and "anti-inflationary austerity" measures to privatization, Haitians will gain a better understanding of the macro-economic picture.

Etienne is guardedly optimistic about the future. "We are small, a bit of sand in the ocean. We are poor. But we are strong. We have endured for a very long time. And we will say that the calls and letters and faxes to governments and corporate executives are needed. But they are only part of what is needed. We must fight this capitalist monster. Haiti is the worst case, as they say, but we will continue to do what we have to out of social and historical necessity. We hope American workers will join us in this larger fight."