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April 7, 2010
During the hectic week of the Jerzees Nuevo Día Honduras factory inauguration, Evangelina Argueta, the coordinator for maquila organizing in the Choloma region for the Honduran General Workers' Confederation (CGT), took time out for an interview with MSN in San Pedro Sula. Evangelina has been at the forefront of many organizing efforts over the year, including the recent historic victory won by the Jerzees de Honduras workers.
How did you become a union organizer?
I myself am a former maquila worker. Like so many other young people in Honduras I started working in a factory here in San Pedro Sula when I was fifteen. I was still a minor. In those days, there wasn't much opposition to child labour, and the exploitation of minors in the workforce was rampant.
Like so many other young people in Honduras, I worked in the maquila during the day, and went to school at night. My dream was to become a lawyer.
I worked for nine years in that maquila, a factory that employed about 800 workers. I had been there only one year when we decided to form a union. I was one of the founding members. It was in 1980 when there was so much violence and repression in Honduras. Union organizing was next to impossible
Back then, for a union to prevail, the workers had to occupy the company's offices. That's what we did, and we were successful.
That was my introduction to the labour movement - being thrown directly into a major battle. I've been totally committed to unions and union organizing ever since.
Why did you stop working in the maquila?
After nine years of working in that factory I was fired along with 484 other workers. The employer argued that it was no longer economically feasible to pay our salaries, despite the tremendous level of productivity at the factory. We (the union) decided to take the factory owners to court for unlawful dismissal - a process which took over five years and wound up in the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, we ended up losing the case. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the employer and as a result denied us our rights. Four hundred and eighty five workers were left without jobs.
That experience filled me with incredible frustration and rage. It also reaffirmed my commitment to workers and to basic human rights, as well as to ensuring that workers in Honduras are able to have a seat at the negotiating table.
How did you become involved with the CGT?
After being fired, I was unable to find work in any other factory. In the eyes of Honduran companies, being involved in a union is equivalent to committing a crime. They share the names of union leaders, and these names are put on a blacklist in order to make sure that workers who support unions are unable to work.
I had been involved in training programs with the CGT for a few years by then, so in 1987 they decided to make me part of their organizing team. I have been in charge of the Choloma region ever since, organizing and providing legal and other support to maquila workers, whether they are interested in organizing or not. That is our day-to-day work.
What are the main obstacles to union organizing in Honduras?
Business leaders in Honduras still perpetuate the myth that in this country - and particularly in the maquila industry - it is impossible to organize, that under no circumstances will unions be tolerated. This is why the Russell victory is so important. It proves that it is possible to organize in the maquilas.
Russell went to great lengths to stop us, but we persevered, and at great personal risk. There were times when we were followed by men on motorcycles or photographed by unknown people in cars with tainted windows, yet that didn't stop us. We were willing to risk our lives.
The agreement reached with Russell has demonstrated the benefits of trade unionism. But now the SITRAJERZEESND union in the new plant faces a great challenge - members must watch carefully over their union. If SITRAJERZEESND fails, it will be a setback for union organizing in other maquilas.
The media is another challenge. The media in Honduras is on the side of the business leaders and not the workers. They refuse to tell the real story of Jerzees - how winning the re-opening of the factory is one of the great victories in our labour history.
Instead, they praise Honduras for being a good place to invest, using the Jerzees "New Day" plant opening as an example. It is up to us to spread the real story.
What has it meant to you to be a woman union organizer and leader?
One of the biggest challenges I have faced has been discrimination and harassment by men for being a woman in a leadership position within the union. There was always an assumption that women couldn't do the job as well as men. Even today men still have a hard time accepting and respecting women leaders.
Unfortunately one of the pitfalls of the trade union movement is that it is still largely-male dominated, even in the maquila industry where the vast majority of workers are women.
But I should point out that of the fourteen leaders of the CGT's federations, six are women. There has been some progress in terms of getting more equal gender representation, and men have had to learn to accept this.
I think that the way forward is to continue recruiting more women into unions, and into leadership positions. In order to do this we must invest in training, but not just in training women. Men also need to be trained; they need to learn that harassment and discrimination against women will not be tolerated in the union movement.
I also firmly believe that unions have to be at the service of workers, both women and men, and unions that do not serve the workers are not good unions.
One of my greatest sources of satisfaction has been my decision to serve the workers by becoming a union organizer.