U.S. Companies like United Fruit opened banana plantations in Central America and the Caribbeanin the 1880s. But it was only in the 1960s, when new varieties of bananas required rapid processing right on the plantation, that they began hiring women workers. Today about 100,000 of the 400,000 workers on the Latin American export-sector banana plantations are women.
Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America (Cambridge: South End Press, 2005), by the United States historian of labor and women Dana Frank, provides an eye-witness account of those women and the way they are both using and changing what was an all-male labor movement.
The women workers face ten, twelve, and sometimes 14 hour days standing in heat over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, using water laced with fungicides, pesticides, and latex. The women report repetitive motion injuries, skin diseases, back injuries, and a high rate of miscarriage and cancer.
Union organization in the Honduras banana industry dates to 1954, when 36,000 workers at United Fruit, Standard Fruit, and other banana companies struck, created the new union SITRATERCO, and won recognition. In the mid-1970s, the union established base committees on the plantations. Over the course of a decade, women gradually become elected base committee leaders at the plantation level.
In the mid-1980s, women began strategizing together nationally. But their proposal to establish a national women’s committee in the union was opposed – and even ridiculed – by the male union leadership.
But when women workers played a critical role in a major strike, their importance to union strength became apparent. They also cultivated support among the minority of sympathetic male union leaders and threatened to switch political alignments to ensure that a national women’s committee was finally established. They played a growing and increasingly accepted role in the union over the following decade.
In response to a crisis in the banana industry in the early 1990s, seven Honduras banana unions let by SITRATERCO created the alliance COSIBAH. But none of the unions except SITRATERCO had a single woman official, even at the plantation level, or any kind of women’s committees or programs. The SITRATERCO leaders, however believed in the importance of women’s organization, and created the post of secretary of women as the second most important position in the new organization.
They also built the theme of gender into their core educational activities for men as well as for women. Dana Frank was impressed that “At every turn, they framed their struggle for women’s equality and empowerment in terms of union power. SITRATERCO, they argued, could only take on Chiquita if it fully unleashed women’s as well as men’s militance.” Today, one of the women who attended COSIBAH workshops on leadership development and domestic violence is the first woman president of a banana union in Latin American history.
In the early 1990s, banana worker unions throughout the region also created the Coalition of Latin American Banana Unions (COLSIBA). Women workers have taken advantage of it to make their own connections throughout the region. In 2004, for example, 31 women from Columbia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatamala, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras met for four days in Honduras. They started by breaking into groups and comparing clauses in their contracts regarding issues of special concern to women such as maternity leave and pay equality. Then they planned a campaign to standardize key clauses for all seven countries and three international corporate employers. They also heard presentations on flexible labor systems and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
Trade issues have been important to them. An international “Conference of Banana Women Taking on Trade Liberalization” brought women from six countries whose “pronunciamentos” condemned structural adjustment, free trade agreements, and proposed development policies. They proposed alternative policies, such as respect for ILO labor conventions guaranteeing the right to organize and bargain collectively and an end to privatization of public services. Their statement closed, “We’re not against regional integration; we’re against its imposition. Another model for development is possible!!!”
Indeed, the banana women’s activities seem to take fully to heart the idea that the personal is the political – and vice versa. Dana Frank observes that a Workshop on Strategies and Techniques for Collective Bargaining “moved seamlessly from discussions of how to negotiate with the corporations during collective bargaining over a contract, to how to negotiate with one’s male partner over permission to leave the house, to how to negotiate women’s equality within the unions.”
A machismo-oriented culture has, indeed, been a powerful barrier to women’s participation. Husbands and male partners often insist that women ask permission before leaving the house or attending a meeting. They resist providing childcare. Men have often ridiculed women’s initiatives and fought efforts to develop women’s leadership and equality within the labor movement. In this context, women have highly valued as allies those male union leaders who have supported their initiatives.
The small trickle of support and resources from labor movements and foundations outside of Latin America have been critically important. For example, a 2001 self-study by union women banana unionists in Honduras reported that women had no access to such union resources as “telephones, fax machines, computers, desks, records.” This made communication among women extremely difficult. In 2004, COLSIBA’s women leaders received grant money to buy their own computers and take a week-long computer class.
The transnational cooperation of women banana workers is so far unique in among Latin American unions. Dana Frank attributes this uniqueness to the transnational character of the three big banana companies that almost all the women work for. “When COLSIBA in 1993 consolidated banana unions from all three transnational corporations, across seven countries, it created the institutional space for regional women’s work.”
Through COLSIBA,Dana Frank indicates, “women banana unionists have constructed a powerful collective identity that crosses lines of plantation, union, nation, and education.” But she emphasizes that they frame women’s interests as the interests of the entire organization, including both women and men. This, she maintains, challenges us “to envision international labor solidarity with women’s issues at the top of the agenda – in order to build a more powerful workers’ movement across the globe.”