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Education and organising – Why we went to Esquipulas

ITF Inland Transport Sections Secretary MAC URATA reflects on a field programme among truck drivers in Central America that combined education with strengthening union organisation. <ITF Transport International Issue 9, August 2002>

When the ITF presented our project proposal to funding organisations, I was groping to find a list of road transport workers’ unions in Central America. Other than our affiliate SINAMEQUIPH, a prominent tanker drivers’ union in Honduras, we just did not know very much about that region.

The American Center for International Labour Solidarity (ACILS), the international solidarity wing of the US union centre, AFL-CIO, agreed to be one of the supporting organisations. The then ACILS field officer in Central America, Liz O’Connor, felt that the ITF International Road Transport Action Day could be used to promote an organising programme for road transport workers. And that’s how it all started.

Our field visit in May 2000, together with José Iglesias from the ITF Interamerican Regional Office, turned out to be very successful. We met with more than a dozen unions in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The next step was a seminar, inviting unions from these four countries as well as from Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico. By this time, we were communicating well using email. We agreed to focus on organising from “below” and capacity-building of the participants for this. The seminar, held in September 2000, aimed at being practical rather than academic, with many group discussions and role plays. The following month, all participating unions joined in the Action Day for the first time.

This was followed by national seminars in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in February 2001, now focusing specifically on truck drivers’ issues. Whilst the earlier seminar could only invite a few national leaders from each union, these workshops brought in more activists. Some of them had a clear view about what they wanted to do: go to a border crossing point and talk to truck drivers.

So, only a little more than a year since our first field visit, one Sunday morning Liz, José and I and a group of local activists found ourselves driving to Esquipulas in Guatemala, close to the border with El Salvador and Honduras. That afternoon the 30-plus activists from all three countries concentrated on the field programme for the following three days. We set off for the border early the next morning. The afternoons would be spent evaluating the morning’s work and discussing the next day’s strategy.

At the border-point, each team had unionists from all three countries. In the meetings, some had made long speeches while others complained about a “lack of financial support” from the ITF and ACILS. But in the three days spent at the border, they enjoyed themselves walking from one truck to the next, talking to the drivers about the benefits of being in a union. The activists met with more than 300 drivers, no less than 60 of whom agreed to join the union on the spot. These drivers apparently trusted a group of trade unionists who visited them at a remote border crossing and listened to their problems.

This is where the programme ended. SINAMEQUIPH says that more, younger activists are now taking part in union activities. We may have travelled only a short distance. But the confidence that the programme built in such a short period among all of us who took part will, I believe, have a lasting impact.