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U.S. out of Vieques: U.S. troops, cops evict protesters

May 15, 2000

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

Several thousand people filled the streets in front of Fort Buchanan in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 4, to condemn the U.S. government and colonial authorities for the eviction of protesters from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The protesters have been opposing the use of the island for bombing practice by the U.S. Navy.

Students at the University of Puerto Rico shut down the campus in opposition to the evictions carried out in a predawn raid by hundreds of U.S. cops and marines.

At 5:15 a.m. that day, some 200 FBI agents and 100 U.S. marshals, backed up by 1,200 U.S. Marines, evicted some 160 protesters at a Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

At the entrance of the U.S. Navy’s Camp García, Puerto Rican antiriot police blocked off the highway as masked U.S. marshals rolled onto the site of a protest in vans with no headlights on. Protesters refused to leave, but submitted to arrests without tussle. Some 30 people were mounted onto trucks and taken inside the military facility.

Meanwhile, U.S. military helicopters swooped down on the bombing range in eastern Vieques. FBI agents handcuffed and removed close to 140 protesters from 12 camp sites in the area.

The protesters were shipped off to the U.S. naval base at Roosevelt Roads on the main island. While U.S. authorities chose not to charge them, they took down their names and warned them that they would be arrested on trespassing charges if they returned to Navy territory.

At the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard, aided by the marines, established a three-mile-wide “security” zone in the waters around the base on Vieques to block more protesters from arriving. They intercepted at least nine boats that morning. Protesters vowed to continue to penetrate the military-controlled territory.

Pentagon officials have said they intend to resume Navy bombing exercises on Vieques within two weeks. Washington is intent on sending a decisive message to opponents of the U.S. military presence.

Among those detained were dozens of Vieques residents; Lolita Lebrón, a longtime independence fighter and former political prisoner; Ismael Guadalupe Ortiz, and Robert Rabin, both leaders of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.

Also removed were some 40 religious figures and several U.S. politicians, including New York city councilman Jose Rivera, and U.S. Congresspeople Nydia Velázquez and Luis Gutiérrez, from New York and Illinois, respectively.

Washington sets stage for ‘reinvasion’

The Clinton administration’s decision to launch the police-military operation on Vieques took place after the April 22 assault by U.S. immigration cops and marshals on a private home in Miami — carried out in the name of returning Cuban boy Elián González to his father. Within days of the INS operation in Miami, three U.S. warships steamed to Vieques with the marines. For a few days they loomed offshore, while helicopters frequently buzzed over the camps and Humvees and other military vehicles made passes near the range, trying to unnerve protesters.

Agapito Belardo, a leader of the camp in front of Camp García, told the Militant in a phone interview that townspeople were awoken by protesters as the arrests were being made. A large part of the town’s population gathered at the main square to oppose the evictions. “People were outraged,” Belardo said.

In April 1999, a U.S. Navy plane “accidentally” dropped a 500-pound bombs that killed Vieques resident David Sanes. This touched off a groundswell of demonstrations and other actions demanding the Navy stop bombing Vieques and get out. With growing support, opponents of the U.S. Navy presence on the Puerto Rican island set up civil disobedience camps on the Navy bombing range.

In face of these protests, and to try to defuse them, U.S. president William Clinton won the agreement of Puerto Rican colonial governor Pedro Rosselló on a deal. According to this agreement, a referendum is to be held no later than 2002 where Vieques residents are given two choices: to keep the Navy on their land, or for the U.S. military to leave. In the meantime, the Navy would resume bombing practice, using “inert” shells instead of live ammunition and reducing bombing to “only” 90 days a year. Meanwhile, Clinton promised to provide $40 million in economic aid. There has been widespread public rejection of this deal in Puerto Rico, however.

“Judging from information I know, I don’t agree with the bombing or the U.S. occupation,” said Cynthia Paniagua, a 22-year-old Hunter College student in New York. “It’s not just the bombing. Other things are being affected like marine life,” she said, pointing out that fishing is a major part of the Vieques economy. As an advocate of Puerto Rican independence, Paniagua said, “I don’t want them there, period!”

Awilda Rodríguez, 23, another Puerto Rican activist in New York, stated, “What they have done in Vieques is similar to what they’ve done to all of Puerto Rico minus the bombs. This will open a lot of peoples’ eyes. It used to be said that only independentistas fight against the Navy in Vieques, but now after seeing what the U.S. is capable of, many more have come out,” said Rodríguez, who was raised in Puerto Rico. “Growing up, I heard many negative things about the U.S. government. Now I know they’re true.”

U.S., Puerto Rican fighters call protests

“Mass mobilizations in important U.S. cities are key to denounce the arrests and to increase pressure against Navy plans for Vieques,” read an e-mail letter send out internationally by the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.

Demonstrations have been called in Vieques and cities around Puerto Rico.

In Minneapolis 50 people picketed in front of the Navy recruiting center. “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! U.S. Navy has got to go!” chanted pickets there. The protest was called by the Puerto Rican Coalition.

Protests have also been held in Boston and Tucson, Arizona, as well as other cities. Actions have been called in numerous U.S. cities, as well as in Toronto and in south Korea.

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Steelworkers strike Alabama plant to oppose concessions

July 16, 2001

BY BRIAN TAYLOR 
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama–“We are fa-mi-ly!” chanted unionists on a feisty 4:30 a.m. picket line here outside the Meadowcraft plant July 2. Members of United Steelworkers of America Local 8285 voted to strike the plant June 30 after rejecting a concessionary contract that would cut $2 or more from some workers’ hourly wages. Meadowcraft, which employs about 500 workers, is a manufacturer of metal lawn chairs.

More than 120 strikers and their families showed up on the picket line on the first day of the strike. Some workers held signs reading “8285: no incentives.” Bernard Effinger, a heavy machine operator, explained, “They want to put welders on an incentive plan where they will have to work at 104 percent production every day of the working week to make $12.88 an hour. If you don’t make 104 percent, you will make $8.16 an hour.” Welders currently make between $10.25 and $12. Effinger commented that “104 percent is hard to make.”

“There isn’t a person on the picket line who wants to be out here,” said Charles King, who has worked at the plant for 31 years. “But if it wasn’t for the union they would try to cut us to minimum wage. That’s what they’d like to do. You can get sick in this plant and the same supervisor who drives you to the hospital will write you up for leaving early. That’s the kind of people they are. They care about as much for people out here as the dirt under their feet.”

José Gutiérrez, a welder for five years at the plant, said, “It’s not fair–I’ve been working here for five years, but some workers have given their lives to the company and are now older. You can’t expect them to make 104 percent. Some have arthritis. It’s also difficult because they give you bad parts to weld.”

One worker, 27, who asked that his name not be used, said, “We are out here because they are trying to introduce an incentive plan to decrease welders’ pay. We have a number of people who are older and may not be able to make rate.”

Speaking over the blare of a passing semi-truck honking in support, María García stated, “I think it is humiliating that they want to lower our wages to as little as $7.” García is a finishing welder, a job that earns about 50 cents an hour more than parts welders. “I’m making $10.75. Now they want to pay me $7? That’s crazy!”

Dora López, who has worked at the plant for 10 months, said, “I will not accept a drop in my wages.”

Close to half the workers at the plant are Mexican-born. A number of U.S.-born workers remarked that the role Mexican workers play in the strike is crucial to its victory. At the July 1 picket one striker who is a Black woman hopped out of a truck and asked, “Where are the Spanish signs?” When she found out there weren’t any, she approached one of her Mexican co-workers, and they got some fluorescent green poster board to make several signs. The next morning a striker who is Black decided to hold the Spanish-language sign, which read, “Compañeros mexicanos, we need your support for this strike because it is beneficial to everyone that [the company] respects the decision of the union because it would be humiliating for one who would accept to work for less money.”

Striker Rafael Sánchez declared, “No one from Mexico will enter that plant.” His words were echoed by his co-worker Antonio Pérez.

Meadowcraft had security guards at the gate with video cameras. A plain white company van crossed the line several times. People would yell “Scab!” each time. But when the van went into the plant and let out passengers, workers noted that they were supervisors and office staff. It did not appear to strikers that a serious attempt to work production was yet being organized.

“What it boils down to is they want to make us do a day-and-a-half’s work in one day,” explained Maurice Coleman. “If they make the welder work harder, every department will get sped up, too. Incentive pay is like gambling: if I make 100 percent, if I can do it for a week. We as welders are already underpaid. Most places start at $12 or $13 an hour. If we let them put welders on incentive, they will start to do it to every department.”

Jeanne FitzMaurice, a garment worker in Alabama, contributed to this article.

Steelworkers on strike in Alabama stay strong

August 13, 2001

BY BRIAN TAYLOR 
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama–The strike by workers at the Meadowcraft plant here remains solid after four weeks on the picket line. As members of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 8285 win broader layers to join the union, the bosses have launched a series of attacks against the strike.

Workers struck the plant June 30 after rejecting a concessionary contract that would cut $2 or more from the hourly wage of welding department workers. Under the bosses’ thinly masked “incentive” plan, welders at this lawn furniture plant would have to average 104 percent production in a workweek for an 88-cent raise. If they fall short, their hourly wage would drop to $7–8 an hour.

On July 21 workers held a mass rally and barbecue in front of the plant that drew more than 200 strikers and their supporters. “Can we do it? Can we do it? Yes we can! Yes we can!” was one of several chants that day.

A number of strikers less familiar with all the issues in the fight used the event as an opportunity to ask questions of union officials and others. An information sheet on the strike is being translated for workers whose first language is Spanish.

Company begins attacks 
Two-and-a-half weeks into the strike Meadowcraft managers passed out a letter to pickets slandering the union. It claims that the union officials would not sit down and negotiate, and attempts to prettify the company’s takeback contract.

“The letter is bull,” said Willie Hall, who has worked at Meadowcraft for 31 years. “They say the union has not gotten in touch with them. But we just don’t accept the contract. As far as their statement that not everyworker is in the union and voted against the contract–majority rules and the union rules. We are on strike.”

A few days later Zen Pearson, USWA Local 8285 president and a worker in the plant, drafted a response to the company’s lies. Pearson explained that a 55-cent raise over three years–held up as so great by the bosses–doesn’t even offset the rise in insurance costs in the company’s contract.

The company letter is “all about destroying our unity and solidarity.” The letter ends giving special thanks to “our MEXICAN BROTHERS AND SISTERS.” (Emphasis in original.)

Support grows for strike, union 
Strikers have won support from a substantial layer of toilers here in Birmingham. They have also gotten favorable television and news coverage. “Bell South workers brought us donuts, Ken’s Barbecue brought us a pan full of ham, and other locals have been bringing us ice and drinks,” Margie Shockley said.

Finishing welder María García noted that since the strike began the majority of Latinos in the plant have signed union cards.

Local 8285 vice president Lewis Graves said, “They hired a lot of Mexican workers and tried to turn them against us and each other. The Mexicans are good workers and the company thought they could use that against us to push the incentive plan. But Mexican workers rebelled and 25 of them got written up for low production. They joined the union. That’s why we are strong today.”

Tim Mabry, 30, who has worked two years in the shipping department, noted, “If you put welders on incentive who have to do so much to make the rate, shippers who pull those orders will basically be put on incentive too.”

One young Black worker who asked that his name be omitted, said, “I hope the company knows that we are not budging. This struggle is not just about fighting off a concession contract, but also about regaining some of what we lost in previous contracts.”

There are several demands along those lines being discussed on the picket line. One is for resumption of plant-wide seniority. Some years ago the company instituted departmental seniority, which gives the company a freer hand in layoffs and job placement. Another complaint from many strikers is the company’s sick-day policy. “The company does not honor sick days if it’s not for chronic illnesses,” Mabry told reporters. “If you get pneumonia and have to take a couple of weeks off, you can be terminated because it’s a curable disease.”

One victory was the reinstatement of Steve Yancy, a machine operator who has seven years at the plant. “I was fired because I was a union representative filing grievances against racial discrimination. The supervisor claims that I refused to obey a direct order,” he said. The termination took place late last year. Yancy was on the picket line from day one. The union won his reinstatement into the second week of the strike.