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This Day in Labor History: November 12, 1928

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On November 12, 1928, workers for United Fruit in Ciénega, Colombia went on strike. This uprising against the total domination of United Fruit over workers’ lives represents how the company sought to control entire countries in its attempts to dominate the banana trade. The ensuing massacre of those workers a few weeks later demonstrates the very real power the company had in accomplishing that goal.

Founded in 1899 in a merger of fruit companies operating in Central America since the 1870s, United Fruit became arguably the most powerful company in the Americas in the early 20th century. It cut deals with nations to provide them with infrastructure in return for total control over the economy and significant control over politics. By 1901, Guatemala contracted with United Fruit to run its postal service. By 1930, it was the largest employer in Central America. It routinely demanded governments do its bidding and used it deep connections within the U.S. government to use American state power to accomplish its goals if necessary. The term “banana republic” originates with UFCO’s domination over nations like Guatemala and Costa Rica. It also had significant operations within Colombia, particularly the Caribbean coastal lowlands, perfect for large-scale banana production. The area around Santa Marta, a port town along a lovely bay, was the center of UFCO operations in the nation. Ciénega, a small town west of Santa Marta where many plantations were located, became an area where workers started resisting the total domination of the company over their lives.

The preparation for the strike began in October. On October 6, workers issued a set of demands that included a day off per week, hygienic dwelling places, compensation for accidents at work, a 50 percent pay increase for the lowest paid workers, the end of company scrip, weekly payments, sanitation, hospitals, and a number of other demands that highlight just how hard these workers lives were. These workers did not make enough to feed their families unless they brought their entire families with them. Employers and foremen often used to use the wives and daughters of workers for their sexual pleasure. Workers’ wages were routinely stolen by contractors and workers did not have actual contracts with UFCO. This was rank exploitation.

After a month of the company ignoring their demands, the Unión Sindical de Trabajadores de Magdalena issued an ultimatum to either negotiate with the workers or face a strike. The governor of the state of Magdalena urged the company to sit down with the workers. It refused. On November 11, workers gathered in Ciénaga. They declared a strike to begin the next day.

Immediately, the government was hostile. Colombian president Miguel Méndez was a conservative with no patience for the workers. He appointed General Carlos Cortés Vargas as military chief of the banana zone. Working closely with United Fruit’s paid informants, it used the company’s trains to transport troops through the region. The soldiers received extra money for this work to break any possibility of solidarity with the strikers. Company employees rode trains with the soldiers, pointing out workers it wanted arrested. Local officials did side with workers, including the mayor of Ciénega, a Liberal Party stronghold. Because of this significant solidarity, Cortés Vargas worried about his ability to police the region or even control his own troops, many of whom had worked on the banana plantations in the past.

Tensions grew on December 4, when UFCO started paying scabs to pick the fruit. Workers resisted, stopping the trains from passing through. Cortés Vargas then arrested hundreds of strikers. Responding to the strike, United Fruit demanded action. It used its connections in the press and the U.S. government to paint the strike as communist-dominated. During this imperialist period of American policies toward Latin America, with dozens of invasions of nations around the Caribbean Basin whenever the U.S. felt its interests under attack in any way, this was a very real threat. Company officials and the American embassy cabled to the State Department about the red threat. The Coolidge administration then sent word to the Colombian government that if it did not bust the strike, the U.S. might send in the Marines to do it for them.

The government decided to crush the strike. It suspended the rule of law in the banana zone. About 1:30 a.m., according to Cortés Vargas later account defending himself, he ordered his troops with machine guns to the train station. Workers refused to disperse when ordered. The troops then opened fire on the workers. We don’t know how many workers died. Minimum, it was several hundred. Some have claimed it was upwards of 2000. United Fruit itself told the U.S. embassy that between 500 and 600 workers were slaughtered, but the embassy revised that number to over 1000 within a few weeks. Amazingly, the massacre did not actually succeed in its major goal of dispersing the workers and ending the strike. Workers continued to gather. But with UFCO unwilling to negotiate, they had nowhere to go or nothing to do and the strike eventually faded. What was very clear though to all involved is that the sovereign power on the Colombian coast was not based in Bogota. It was out of United Fruit’s New Orleans’ headquarters.

The massacre was massive and grotesque. United Fruit then tried to cover it up by destroying all evidence in its own archives about the entire situation, including the photos it took. It did keep all evidence of worker violence, including photos of burned company stores or other company buildings, as displayed at the top of this post, in order to shape future tales of the event.

United Fruit’s domination of the region continued for decades, most notoriously in getting the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected president of Guatemala when he nationalized some of the company’s unused land for agrarian reform and land redistribution.

I borrowed from Kevin Coleman’s essay, “The Photos That We Don’t Get to See: Sovereignties, Archives, and the 1928 Massacre of Banana Workers in Colombia,” in Daniel Bender and Jana Lipman, eds., Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism.

This is the 199th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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