Albert Moreau

The Meaning of the Girardot Strike in Colombia

Source: International Press Correspondence, Vol. 11, No. 38, July 16, 1931
Transcription/Markup: Paul Saba
Copyleft: Internet Archive ( 2018. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons License.

More than half a year has passed since Olaya Herrera, the “adopted child” of Yankee imperialism assumed the presidency of the Colombian Republic. The promises made by him to the people of Colombia and the workers in particular are still fresh in our mind. Oloya Herrera, candidate of the Liberal Party, had returned from the United States to occupy the presidential chair of Colombia on a promised plan for the reorganisation of the country, carrying with him the experiences of “Yankee capitalist prosperity”.

To what extent this Wall Street President fulfilled his promises can be seen by the unprecedented strike wave now taking place throughout the country. The economic crisis, which was already acute previous to Herrera ascendency to power, has deepened further. Moreover, the attempt of the government to put into execution Mr. Kemmerer’s financial recommendations made in the early part of this year and accepted by the Colombian Congress is finding a strong opponent: the working class and the poor peasantry.

The strikes of the suburban bus (autobus) workers in Bogota, the miners of San Vicente and the sugar workers of the Manuelita in Valle del Cauca, which occurred in March of this year, were merely the prelude for bigger struggles in May affecting the sore spot of the lackey government. These are the strikes of the railroad workers of Girardot y Tolima and the coffee plantation workers in Viota.

In order to understand the importance of these strikes, we must closely follow the events leading to them and derive the lessons which we know our comrades will use in future strike actions. We must first remember that one of the important recommendations made by Mr. Kemmerer and finally endorsed by Herrera’s Congress was the proper “control and autonomous handling of the national railroads”. This provision of the plan opens the way for U.S.A. investments in the railroads of the country. It is based upon the provision that the government must cut the wages of the workers, increase their working hours and in general adopt the rationalisation system of speedup and lay offs.

The railroad workers have already suffered a wage-cut from $1.20 to $0.70 per day. They work ten and more hours a day. There have been constant lay-offs, particularly of those workers who protested against the further wage reduction. Early in May, the Central Offices announced a further wage cut of 12 per cent, to 20 per cent. The “re-organisation” of the national railways meant to the workers the nullification of the free commutation to which they are entitled, the denial of medical assistance in case of accidents, etc. A serious grievance of the workers has always been the inadequate medicinal supply against the tropical fevers.

Before this situation, the Girardot railroad workers, of whom a small number are organised and are affiliated to the National Trade Union Committee (Committee for the Organisation of a National Revolutionary Trade Union Centre in Colombia), went on strike. It was a spontaneous strike. The workers unanimously requested that the National Trade Union Committee take the leadership.

In the morning of May 9th, armed forces of the government occupied the railroad stations in an attempt to demoralize the strikers and protect the strike-breakers. Thus the strike-breaking forces of the government quelled the strike, arrested the leaders, Sabogal and Bernal.

What were the positive and negative sides of this strike, without understanding which we cannot prevent failures and shortcomings in the future struggles? The combativeness of the workers was tremendous. At the outset of the strike, they demanded the leadership of the National Trade Union Committee, being thus sure that they would not be betrayed. The Trade Union of Girardot, which immediately stepped into the situation, had a membership of 200, and within a few days this increased to 1,200. The influence of the comparatively high-salaried, railway shop workers who announced (140 of them) their opposition to the strike, did not succeed in stifling the fighting mood of the workers The sympathetic atmosphere in which the strike took place extended throughout the country. The workers of the other national railway lines began to prepare for a general strike.

From the revolutionary working class press of Colombia, we gather that our comrades made a serious analysis of their shortcomings. Let us enumerate the important ones. The lack of preparation of the strike by the union itself. The popularisation of the demands put up by the workers, a fundamental prerequisite for the success of the strike, was lacking. The demands should have been made on the basis of a series of meetings with the workers, to hear their grievances before these were finally formulated. Before their formulation the broadest masses of workers, in the union and outside of it, should have been approached and consulted.

The comrades are absolutely correct to specially emphasise the fact that the strike Committee did not function. We gather from the reports that only one strike Committee was organised. This, of course, was a serious mistake. The Strike Committees elected by the workers themselves should have included the greatest number of workers possible, among the organised and unorganised in every locality and railway station.

On the eve of the strike, the leading committee made no effort to counteract the influence of the Liberal Party politicians who sent their agents to speak to the workers in groups. Our comrades estimate that if a general meeting were held on the eve of the strike, the workers would have felt confident of a strong and capable leadership being side by side with them. This is correct.

On the day of the strike, Comrade Sabogal was arrested. The Secretary of the Union, Comrade Bernal, went to protest at the police station for the detention of Sabogal. Both were sent to Bogota and released after the strike was over. What was the error committed? It appears that these two comrades were the outstanding leaders of the strike and, naturally, they were invested with great responsibilities. A leaderless strike is doomed. The correct thing for Bernal to do was to remain at his post, with the workers, mobilise them to demonstrate and demand the release of Sabogal. We cannot emphasise enough the seriousness of such “heroic” acts so common in Latin America. They indicate the “putchist” methods, petty-bourgeois methods of struggle so harmful to the working class. In fact, all the shortcomings above mentioned are the outcome of the still prevalent ideology of “revolutionary socialism” so typical of Latin America, and particularly of Colombia.

The spontaneity of the strike took the comrades, especially the leadership, by surprise. Yet the very existence of the Girardot Railroad Workers Union was the basis for the organisation of the strike. Had the everyday activities of the revolutionary workers within the Union been consistent and. systematic, they would have awakened to the growing mood of the workers to strike, in the face of the unbearable conditions in which they live.

We are of the opinion that the present is a very favourable situation in Colombia for the further development of the independent strike actions of the working class. Before the rapid crystallisation of the independent revolutionary unions such as the Bavaria Brewery Workers Union and the Germania Brewery Workers Union, the Banana Plantation Workers Union in the Magdalena region, etc, the National Trade Union’ Committee finds itself in the midst of favourable conditions for the organisation of mass trade unions in. Colombia.