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Tuesday, September 17 2019 @ 08:44 pm EDT

A Clear Explanation of the Protests in Bocas del Toro

Protests & DemonstrationsBy DON WINNER for - The information coming out of the town of Changuinola in the province of Bocas del Toro in the Republic of Panama regarding striking banana plantation workers and conflicts with riot police yesterday afternoon was somewhat confusing. As with any fluid and developing situation sometimes the signals get crossed and messages are mixed or more difficult to understand. The fact that there are at least three and maybe more actors in this situation - the striking banana plantation workers, the Bocas Fruit Company, and the police and government sources - further complicates matters. Add to this the fact that Changuinola is relatively remote and removed from Panama City and it's harder to get there, so one becomes dependent on the information coming from biased sources. Also, the first string news reporters were not on the scene initially and it's been taking them some time to get it straight. Finally, there are other political elements at play with allegations that all of this is being backed, fomented, and incited by both domestic actors such as the PRD and international actors such as Hugo Chavez. In short, it's a relatively confusing bowl of noodles to contemplate. With all of that as preamble, allow me to explain as clearly as possible the current situation as I understand it right now. (more)

Union Dues: The recently passed and highly controversial Law 30 makes payment of union dues by workers voluntary. Before this law was passed, the only thing a labor union had to do was to "organize" any job site by getting half of the workers to vote in favor. Once that was accomplished, the employer was then obligated by law to deduct the 2% union dues from every worker, whether or not they are a member of the union. Law 30 eliminated this requirement, and in fact employers now have to consult with the workers - basically to ask them permission - in order to deduct the union dues. It is now effectively illegal to deduct the 2% union dues from a worker against their wishes. Law 30 says workers can pay union dues voluntarily however no one can be obligated to pay the dues under any circumstances. This is why the union leaders hate this new law so much and they are ready to literally fight to the death over this issue. Law 30 removes their money, and therefore their power.

Bocas Fruit Company: Apparently the Bocas Fruit Company did in fact deduct the 2% union dues from worker's paychecks. The company supposedly asked workers to fill out a form or to give them something in writing that says in effect "I don't want you to deduct the union dues from my paycheck anymore." Many workers turned these in, and supposedly or reportedly the Bocas Fruit Company made the deductions from their paychecks anyway. When protests started last week, supposedly the company promised they would return the money to the workers no later than early Wednesday morning. When that didn't happen, the problem and tensions escalated.

They Kept The Money: On the other hand, reportedly the Bocas Fruit Company didn't turn over the union dues collected to the labor union - in this case the Sindicato de la Industria del Banano (Banana Industry Union) - either, further fanning the flames. This action of course infuriated the union leaders because primarily they are not fighting for "workers rights" or anything like that, they just want the money.

Government Will "Sanction" The Company: Yesterday afternoon there was a parade of government Ministers who were trying to explain the situation, with none of them doing a very good job of it, but they did say they would be applying "sanctions" against the Bocas Fruit Company for having illegally withheld the union dues against the wishes of the workers. The Labor Minister went so far as to say they would be making an example of this company to send a loud and clear message to every other company in the country, that they fully intend to enforce the provisions of Law 30.

Misinformation from Union Leaders: The union leaders from the Sindicato de la Industria del Banano are unethically and immorally taking advantage of the situation in many ways. They repeatedly declare that Law 30 supposedly does many things and contains many provisions and articles that in fact, are simply not there. For example, union leaders all around the country - from unions representing banana workers, construction workers, among others - often say Law 30 "eliminates their right to strike." Nothing could be further from the truth. Union leaders say workers will have to work on Sunday at regular pay - also untrue. Union leaders tell their members their vacations have been eliminated - also untrue. The union leaders to this to incite their membership to action. Unfortunately it's a simple fact that many of the banana workers in the Changuinola area are relatively ignorant manual laborers, and apparently they have a tendency to believe what they are told by the union leaders, and they have a limited capacity or ability to learn the truth for themselves. The end result is that these guys find themselves out there exchanging rocks for tear gas with the riot police, with some of them getting shot and killed, thanks to the lies being told to them by the union leadership, people who are supposedly looking out for their well being. In fact, the union leadership only wants the money, and if a handful of union workers have to be shot and killed in the process, then well that's just the "price of progress" or whatever in their twisted minds. I find this whole thing to be morally reprehensible, but that's just me.

Stoked By The PRD: The PRD is in a tough spot politically speaking in Panama. They take advantage of anything that's bad or tough for the government of Ricardo Martinelli and they basically "pile on" when they can. Of course the PRD guys are taking advantage of the situation to push the labor unions to cause as many problems as possible for Martinelli, so that hopefully they will be able to come back in 2014 to promise to clean up the mess (or whatever.) Political considerations are always in play in this country.

The Cops In A Tough Spot: Going up against striking banana workers in Changuinola is a whole different ballgame than facing off against a handful of Big Mac engorged protesting college students in front of the University of Panama. In those clashes, the banana workers are young, fit, and quite possibly in better physical condition than the police officers they are clashing with. They were throwing literally thousands of rocks at the police cordons, and the police were outnumbered by maybe five to one or more. From reports I heard yesterday there were only about 180 riot police officers on the ground, who were going up against potentially thousands of rioting banana workers. And that's why some of them got killed. A stone thrown at your head from any distance is a potentially deadly weapon. The police tried to use tear gas to disperse the protesters which didn't work. Last night there were reports that three or four riot police officers had been "captured" and were being "held" by the banana workers. And, at least one of the protesters has been killed - shot to death by the police - and there might be as many as four. Now of course everyone will blame the police officers, and not the union leaders who incited these people to violence in the first place. And that is exactly why the "line of duty" element was included in Law 30 as well. These guys are trying to do their jobs and follow orders in a chaotic riotous situation, outnumbered and fighting for their lives. They responded in kind to the use of deadly force with deadly force. I wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

Jimmy Papadimitriu - Lead Negotiator: The Minister of the Presidency, Jimmy Papadimitriu, is on the ground in Changuinola and meeting with the banana workers. There is a meeting scheduled for 10:00 am this morning, for example. In a statement to the press last night he said he was surprised at the amount of disinformation and misinformation that was being distributed to the workers - basically lies about the contents of Law 30. He said the very first thing they had to do was to educate and inform all of the workers about the true contents of the law - which they started doing immediately.

"Indigenous People" Join The Frey: In Panama they use the term "indigenous people" for what we call "native Americans" in the United States. These are the various tribes and collections of people who were here in Panama before the Spanish arrived. They generally live in what are called "comarcas", which translates literally to "area" or "district" but Americans would call these "reservations" - areas of land where they supposedly have a degree of autonomy and independence from the central government. Many of the indigenous peoples of Panama have their own problems and disputes with the government of Ricardo Martinelli, and the issue of copper mining is going to bring these to a head. Also, most of the banana workers are also "indigenous" peoples from the Bocas del Toro region. Yesterday Susan Guberman-Garcia posted the following story about two people who were trying to drive in the area yesterday;

  • You know, I have been pro union all my life. I have walked away from hotels, restaurants, and airplanes to avoid crossing a picket line. I didn't buy a grape or a bottle of Coors for 20 years. I sympathize with the strikers, disapprove of the chorizo law, and don't like all the repression that seems to be coming out of the government these days. Martinelli's attitude towards unions and the not so subtle attempts to break all the unions in Panama sure doesn't have my approval

  • But the tactics that these people are using against their innocent neighbors and others does not make sense to me. I got a call tonight from a friend who was driving back to Bocas (via Almirante) in his truck. I guess he was one of the few people around who didn't know that the roads were closed. A few miles outside of Almirante, he had to stop because the protesters had dragged big trees into the road. OK, fine, he thought, we'll turn around and go back and come back when its all over. As he turned his truck around to go back, a bunch of protestors dragged another tree and put it right behind his truck so he couldn't go back the way he had come. They then left. He and his wife were alone in their truck, no way to go forward or back. Nothing around but jungle, no towns, no lights, nothing. He started making calls, to his worker to let him know to feed the dogs and then he called me. I told him I would call the police. They were not interested and said "there's nothing we can do."

  • I called my friend back and told him I had no luck. Just then, he saw headlights behind him. A truck driver and wife had pulled over behind the tree blocking the road heading back towards Chiriqui Grande. The trucker offered to take my friend and his wife back with them (they were heading back to David). Then a taxi pulled up coming from the Almirante side, and soon there were 3 or 4 cars, all in the same boat (except the truck driver, who was on the other side of the blockaded road.

  • Then, about 15 men, some carrying machetes came over and started yelling at my friend, waving their machetes. They surrounded my friend, his wife and the trucker and physically prevented them from moving. For the next hour and a half, there was a complete standoff. The men were yelling and waving their machetes, the taxi driver got pissed and got his own machete out of the truck, and there was a lot of yelling. I got on my other phone and called the police again. The police said they were stuck, there was nothing they could do, there were no plans to bring any kind of equipment to remove the trees, and they were afraid.

  • Eventually, the men with the machetes decided to stop the threats and harassment, the truck driver started hacking at the tree blocking the road back to Chiriqui Grande, and they finally got it out of the way, and everybody hit the road.

  • Here's my point: This is really dumb. What if somebody on that road needed to get to a doctor? What if some lady was having a baby? What if somebody was having a heart attack? What if they needed food? How is punishing the people who live or drive along that road create sympathy for the strikers? How does it help the people of Almirante if they can't get supplies? None of the people who are being harmed by this kind of behavior are responsible for the unjust conditions of workers, and they are not the people who should be punished.

The Police Can't Be Everywhere: The indigenous people who blocked the road were making a statement of solidarity with the striking banana workers. How does this help their cause? They took advantage of the situation to try to send a message to the government of Ricardo Martinelli, saying that they have the power and ability to come down out of the jungle and cause problems as well. However, the impact of this particular action was probably minimal because there was no local news coverage of this incident, and everyone was completely focused on the action in Changuinola. In any case, the guys who were blocking the road with trees and waving machetes were probably not banana workers, but others who have a bitch and complaint with the central government as well.

Hope This Helps: I think this situation in Changuinola will be defused as the government gets the truth out about Law 30 to the striking banana workers. This whole thing was instigated and fueled by the union leaders - who in my estimation should be held ultimately responsible for all losses and damages - both material and in loss of life and injury. This entire evolution was completely unnecessary and was fueled by lies, told by immoral "leaders" who only care about their own best interests and bank accounts.

Do The Math: If there are 1,000 banana workers who make $500 per month - how much does the labor union collect in union dues? That's a monthly payroll of $500,000 dollars and 2% of that is $10,000 per month or $120,000 per year. Now, how many of those 1,000 people will be electing to stop paying union dues? Probably most of them. For sake of argument let's say 60%. Therefore in effect the $120,000 per year drops to $48,000 per year. That's what this conflict is all about - the union dues money that will no longer be going to these so-called "leaders".

Bias Alert: Can you tell that I'm not happy with the so called "union leaders"? If they were not lying to their people I would be backing their efforts. If they actually had the best interests of their members at heart, I would be backing their efforts. However, in my estimation and in my humble opinion, I personally have come to the conclusion that these "leaders" are completely and totally corrupted on several levels. The are "entrenched" in their leadership positions and they have always used the money they collect in dues to pay off supporters to buy votes in internal elections. This is yet another of Panama's "open secrets" that Martinelli is addressing.

Copyright 2010 by Don Winner for Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.

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A Clear Explanation of the Protests in Bocas del Toro
Authored by: susangg on Friday, July 09 2010 @ 02:14 pm EDT
Please do not misconstrue my comments criticizing some of the tactics of some of the protestors in Bocas del Toro as indicative of agreement with the policies of the Martinelli administration that led up to these riots. In fact, I consider the government as bearing the majority of responsibility for the violence, deaths and injuries, and destruction of property that have occurred. The government insisted on ramming through a law of dubious legality, bad economics, and general all around bad juju, knowing full well what the consequences would very likely be: Intense public reaction to the point where protestors, police officers just trying to do their jobs under great stress and in conditions of great personal danger, and the general public would be placed in unecessary jeopardy. I use the term "dubious legality" because the banning of union dues checkoff probably violates the International Labor Organization compact, to which I believe Panama is a signatory, with respect to guarantees of freedom to organize, as does the striking-as-grounds-for-firing components of the "chorizo law." Similarly, the "no striking for Canal improvement workers" also very likely violates an ILO provision. No-strike laws are supposed to be aimed at prevently potential threats to life, health and safety, and to "essential public services." A good argument can be made that, while Canal improvement work is very important, it does not meet those criteria. The chorizo law also retroactively abrogates numerous if not virtually all union contracts in Panama, which is socially and economically irresponsible. While none of us are in a position to know every fact surrounding some of the deaths that have occurred (or even, how many people have died), the extent of injuries, It seems fairly clear that overreaction by both sides to this conflict have overreaction that must have been anticipated by the government. It is also clear that deliberate violations of human rights have occurred: The negligent, possibly reckless, and possibly even deliberate misuse of tear gas in small confined areas near or even inside homes has been condemned in the past by the United Nations in many venues. The arrest and torture of a journalist is not excusable: Surely the journalist was not accused of being a rioter. Most inexcusable is the order, as described in La Estrella, to enter the homes of known union leaders and arrest them for "violating the honor of the president." If such an order was indeed given, on such grounds (and while any newspaper is certainly capable of error, I have seen no evidence that this story is false or incorrect, yet....) what could be more indicative of a mindset that is more indicative of caudillo style dictatorship than a democratic society. Again, none of this excuses crimes that may have been committed by rioters (or by criminals or thugs taking advantage of an explosive situation to wreak havoc unrelated to political purpose, as often occurs during riots). But the extremely poor judgment that culminated in a violent situation that that was highly predictable is disturbing.
--- "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." (Thomas Jefferson)
A Clear Explanation of the Protests in Bocas del Toro
Authored by: Don Winner on Friday, July 09 2010 @ 06:23 pm EDT

Regulations Passed Today: It just so happens the administration of Ricardo Martinelli approved the regulation to implement the articles of Law 30 which deal with union dues. Specifically, employers are authorized to deduct union dues from their workers, unless and until the worker notifies them in writing that they no longer wish to pay union dues. Once that's been done, then the employer can no longer deduct the union dues. The simple fact remains - paying union dues is now voluntary. The law no longer forces a worker who is not a member of the union to pay 2% of their paycheck in union dues. I think that's a good thing, and the union leaders hate it.

Do The SUNTRACS Math: Suntracs has more than 12,000 members. The average construction worker makes more than $600 per month. Therefore, SUNTRACS collects $12 per month from each employee. Multiply that times 12,000 members and you get $144,000 per month. Multiply that times twelve months and you get $1,728,000 dollars. More than $1.7 million dollars, every year. Most of their "members" are forced and they really would rather not have anything to do with SUNTRACS. This will give them an option to at least say "no thanks" where before their hand was forced.

Responsibility: Ask yourself - in all of these banana worker protests, have you heard anyone clearly and plainly voice exactly why these guys are out there throwing stones at the police and getting shot in the face with shotguns? They will tell you "because Martinelli is taking away our right to strike, our vacation time, we are going to have to work seven days a week for less money..." The labor union leaders are quite simply LYING to their members, in order to get them fired up enough to protest violently. Like, don't confuse me with the facts, because I'm already pissed off. Then they use some of those union dues to buy booze for everyone, and now it's gotten out of their control. So, you blame the government for giving workers a right to participate in a union if they choose to do so? That's what all of this is happening? Give me a break... Responsibility here rests with the union leaders who have poured the gas and lit the match.