Today is a Day of Action for Worker Justice organized by Witness for Peace, a grassroots organization of people committed to the nonviolent support of those in Latin America and the Caribbean who are affected by unjust U.S. policies and corporate actions. People across the United States are called to fast in solidarity with a group of Colombian workers who were wrongfully fired from a General Motors plant in their country.
This day was brought to my attention by Jess Hunter-Bowman, a friend who is the associate director of Witness for Peace. I was inspired to write this post when Jess told me that several of the Colombian workers have chosen to go on a hunger strike, and some have marked this action by sewing their mouths shut (warning: the photo is a bit graphic). As James Jasper, Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Francesca Polletta, and others have reminded us, protest can be as symbolically powerful as it is instrumentally powerful.
I’ve included selections from a short interview I did with Jess on the campaign and the meanings behind fasting and hunger striking.
AJ: First, can you provide some background information about this campaign?
JHB: Well, there is a Chevy assembly plant in Bogota that is a subsidiary of GM. The plant doesn’t operate at the same safety standards as plants in the U.S. Workers were getting repetitive strain injuries and then being fired [without compensation]. In May of 2011 a group of 68 formed an ex-workers association to try to call on the company to give them their jobs back, and in August 2011 they started protesting outside the U.S. embassy in Bogota…They were there for a year. On the one-year anniversary of their protest outside the embassy, they began a hunger strike. Four sewed their mouths shut, and the next week three more. There ended up being 13 people on hunger strike, 7 who had sewn their mouths shut. They went through a couple of mediations with the subsidiary that didn’t go anywhere, so on August 16th GM sent out a big delegation of 80 people, including 18 lawyers. On the 22nd they reached a deal to temporarily suspend the hunger strike and enter into mediation with the company. When that mediation failed after four days, the hunger strike began again.
AJ: And you stopped eating, too! How long have you been fasting?
JHB: Since September 3rd. As far as I know, no one else doing it straight through except for me and the workers. [September 17th] is a day of action and someone else says they’re going to do a 2-week fast starting then…How much longer? I don’t know…I’m one of the key organizers of the campaign, so I’m not in a position to be on a gurney in front of GM…I don’t know how long it’ll be, right now. I can’t be in a position to not be able to do work to support them.
AJ: What motivates you to fast?
JHB: Witness for Peace’s slogan is “Solidarity in Action.” We view ourselves as a solidarity organization that tries to support social movements in Latin America, trying to see how we can play a positive role with them instead of just telling them what they can do better. I haven’t fasted in a long time, but these guys are on hunger strike, so it’s a logical form of solidarity that we can show them. I also personally view it as a powerful form of nonviolence — saying “I will not feed myself until this injustice is remedied.” It’s a tactic, obviously…I find it to be powerful both in terms of the message it sends to supporters and potential supporters [of the campaign], as well as the target of the action. Also, for me personally, it’s not that hard to fast. I find it to be almost a spiritual discipline. I’m extremely focused on why I’m fasting, and what the injustice is [that has motivated it]. [I have fasted before but] this fast is more like a pressure campaign. To show the workers they are not alone. It’s also about encouraging others to fast, so we can show that we have a large number of people [who support the campaign].
AJ: What’s the difference between a “fast” and a “hunger strike,” if there is one?
JHB: The distinction between what I’m doing and what [the workers are] doing is that they’ve said they’re not eating again until this is solved. They say [they're doing it] to the death. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what I draw as the distinction. I’m fasting in solidarity with them, but I’m going to stop at some point.