Wednesday, 16th January 2002
Day 22 of the workers’ occupation of the CAM tower, and negotiations both official and unofficial go on inside and outside the building between the union, the mayor, and the government.
Meanwhile the regional Strike Command which was regrouped at the beginning of the occupation, and draws together representatives of trade unions, social organizations, and community leaders, is meeting in earnest to plan actions and events of solidarity. In the rural areas surrounding Cali, after a meeting yesterday, a joint statement has been issued by the community council leaders in support of the occupation and the struggle to defend public services. In the poor neighborhoods community leaders are ready for the civic strike if and when it is called. In the University students are meeting to plan for a big conference tomorrow morning on “The crisis in Argentina and its effect on Cali ¯ the Occupation of CAM”. In the Navaro EMCALI plant SINTRAEMCALI worker delegates are meeting, and at 2pm there is a general workers assembly outside the occupation. In the human rights department of SINTRAEMCALI we are busily preparing for a video conference between British trade union leaders and the occupying workers tomorrow, and dealing with the logistics and day to day issues that come up, and trying to keep all the different groups in contact with each other ¯ a mammoth task which we are unable to fulfill, but are happy to die trying.
I am waiting and hoping for the government to authorize my entry into the occupation, as a human rights observer. After a meeting between Alexander the union president, and Berenice, a human rights activist and negotiator yesterday, they thought it would be a good idea to try to get me government authorization to get inside the occupation to talk about the international solidarity work that we are involved in, and do some worker education sessions to raise the spirits. Popular education is in the background of everything that we do, and with the systematic elimination of trade union and social leaders being carried out by parastate forces, the urgency of forming new leadership is ever present.
Last night I spent the evening outside the occupation. Things were fairly low key, and there was time to chat to some of the people outside the occupation who have put their lives on hold since December 25th. One of the community mothers, who look after children in the poorest neighborhoods, was telling me about the march that was called on the 11th of January, and how the Mayor had denied permission due to the delicate nature of the peace negotiations that were taking place that day. More than 10,000 people marched from their neighborhoods, meeting up in the centre, and ending outside the occupation. The most popular slogan of the day being “We will march with permission or without it, the Cali community is present, present, present” (it sounds better in Spanish).
The march seems to have moved the process forward with both national and local government recognizing that the support for SINTRAEMCALI and the struggle is building across the working class neighborhoods, the universities, and among the workers. This is a vindication of the strategy of the union for several years, which has been that it is in the poor communities where the foundations to social change have to be built. I have heard countless speeches from Alexander, the president, and Lucio, the vice president on trying to rebuild the social fabric of the society from below, not with fine words but with actions. For the last 8 months they have been running ´Mingas´which in one of the local indigenous languages means something like ´to come together to carry out a specific task´. In SINTRAEMCALI, and in alliance with other unions and social organizations, this has meant that every few weeks workers, doctors, nurses , lawyers, hairdressers all give up their weekends and go to the poorest neighborhoods and provide their services for free: fixing electricity lines, telephones, giving free medical treatment, legal advice, haircuts and a whole range of activities. It has become a carnival of solidarity, and has generated a process of trust between the unions and the communities: the marches, the support, and hopefully the victory are products of this work, and it is a lesson that we on the left in Britain can learn from.
Moving back into the workers kitchen, I am becoming increasingly aware that those who are feeding the occupying workers are fulfilling many more duties then that. Some have also become important negotiators between the police and the union, smoothing over disputes, and calming the situation. They have been living side by side with the police for 22 days now, and some friendships have sprung up, with a few police becoming new allies to the cause. The young recruits have much in common with the workers, and they and their families will be equally effected if prices of services go up, with many well aware of the brutality of the economic policies being pushed through. These new recruits to the cause are now helping the union in many interesting ways ¯ will let you know after.
Finally, a few words on the new fashion items emerging amongst the activists; Baseball caps, T-Shirts, and even kitchen aprons with “2nd Occupation of the CAM tower” written across them, all money need I say is going to the occupation fund. This is the time to be proud of our class, for it is fighting back with dignity and imagination.