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This Day in Labor History: March 23, 1903

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On March 23, 1903, U.S. troops arrived in Honduras during a disputed election to protect fruit company interests. This is a moment to discuss the labor history of fruit workers in that nation, an incredibly exploited group of workers, even if there is no examples of worker revolt against the companies there.

In the 1870s, American ships started coming to Honduras to buy fruit, both bananas and coconuts. The abolition of slavery in the Caribbean led to a migratory workforce seeking new opportunities and a lot of potential laborers moved from places such as Jamaica to places such as Honduras. Soon there was a nearly insatiable desire for bananas in the United States. By 1892, more than 12 million bunches passed through New Orleans, which was the entry point for this trade due to its proximity to Central America. Because fruit was a rarity in the U.S. during much of the year in the period before refrigeration, bananas because the first year-round fruit available. Americans wanted their bananas and they didn’t care how companies got them to their plates. Those companies were sure not to tell people either.

By 1900, United Fruit and Standard Fruit were the two dominant banana companies in Latin America. Sharp rivals, they used Latin American governments as pawns in their own corporate battle for control of the industry. Offering Central American nations railroads, the promise of modernization, and the integration of the swampy and lightly populated coastal lands into the state, the fruit companies soon came to completely control these nations, to the point of having access to American troops to enforce their wishes.

In 1903, Honduras had a disputed election. United Fruit had specific interests in seeing General Manuel Bonilla win. Perhaps he did. In any case, they would get the U.S. to send a small group of Marines to Honduras in order to see it through. This moment in itself is usually taught as part of American imperialism and rightfully so. In fact, it is the first of seven different American military interventions in the Honduran banana region over the next few decades. It is not specifically a critical day in global labor history. But we can use it as a date to tie together a history of Honduran labor on banana plantations, a story that lacks dramatic dates but that does play a critical role in national, regional, and global labor history.

Over the next few decades, the fruit companies established large plantations on the Honduran North Coast. Tens of thousands of workers, mostly men, cleared forests and swamps, dug drainage ditches, planted the fields, and harvested the fruit. Thousands of other workers, primarily women, moved to coast to engage in reproductive labor around the camps such as cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Workers moved from the highlands to the coast and back. The first thing that they probably got was not a paycheck, but malaria. While malaria did start to finally decrease by the 1930s, at least as late of 1935, at least 7,000 Standard Fruit workers came down sick with it and in 1936, the Truxillo Railroad Company, which serviced the plantations, had 4,600 cases among its workers. The majority of the workforce were Honduran, with sizable numbers of people from other Central American nations and a few from around the Caribbean islands. Workers often started laboring as teens or even younger. By the early 1930s, wages rarely surpassed $2 a day, with about 50 cents of this going back to the contractor for meals. Some contractors fired anyone who ate outside of company kitchens, others gave workers more choice. Most of the work was done through contractors, with the fruit companies not employing too many workers directly. With much work done seasonally or on a short-term basis, this gave the fruit companies maximum flexibility and minimal responsibility. The instability of the work forced workers to deal with frequent and sometimes lengthy periods of unemployment, creating a migratory work force who moved out of necessity rather than choice.

Another uniting feature of the work was the combination of natural environmental hazards and poison. Malaria remained a huge problem for this workforce. In 1926, one out of four United Fruit employees who needed medical attention did so for malaria, which meant thousands of cases a year. Companies could have provided better housing, mosquito nets, and other technologies to minimize this problem, but then that would have required investment in workers about whom they were indifferent. Snakes were another significant problem. The barba amarilla, better known to the Global North as the fer-de-lance, is an extremely poisonous snake. And it was quite common in these fields and there were several life-threatening bites every year. In fact, when I was in Honduras once, I saw one on a road that had been recently run-over by a car. Workers also suffered from high rates of respiratory illness. In fact, these illnesses did more to kill workers than the malaria. Between 1923 and 1926, 602 United Fruit workers died of the latter and 234 from the former, though many more were debilitated. Many of these lung issues were caused by the terrible housing the fruit companies provided. Living spaces were cramped and hygiene was very bad. It was not until after World War II that any of this improved in any meaningful way.

There there was the poison. As the agro-industrial machine grew during the 20th century, an increased amount of chemicals were sprayed. After World War II, new chemicals such as DDT became part of the workers’ world, but even in the early twentieth century, poison was a major part of life. The banana plantations were quite susceptible to disease and the first major one to hit was Sigatoka, which ruined the bananas. So chemical controls were used to try and save the plantations called Bordeaux spray that was based around copper sulfate. This meant that gangs of workers roamed the plantations spraying in groups of 10-12. The chemicals were pretty nasty and the companies wanted to keep costs as low as possible. This meant, naturally, that workers were placed in unsafe situations. The spray turned workers’ bodies blue. Here’s a remembrance from a worker named Cantalisio Andino:

I used to sleep in a bed made of leather. One day my wife says to me, “I was cleaning and I noticed that the underside of your bed is blue.” I told her, “Damn, I’m not going back to work with that stuff.” My body–and there was nothing on top of the bed. It was the under-side that was blue. When I realized this, I told myself, “This means you’re poisoned.” I never went back…it scared me to see my bed so blue. I remember that I worked with a shirt and then the sack on top, and still the poison penetrated my skin.

This stuff got into people’s lungs and brains. Of course no one was really keeping count of how many workers may have died because of it. The workers were already sick in other ways . It all contributed to early death. Chronic symptoms of poisoning were close to chronic symptoms of other common aliments such as tuberculosis. Much later there was a study of workers exposed to Bordeaux spray in Portugal vineyards that confirmed just how poisonous this really was. There was no such study in Honduras. Instead, workers tried to layer clothing, placed handkerchiefs over their mouths, and teamed up with more experienced applicators who theoretically knew how to minimize exposure.

We also should not underestimate the sheer physical brutality of this work. Harvesting fruit was hell on workers’ backs. The Gros Michel banana that was dominant at the time grew high in the trees and required large poles to bring down. The fruit bunch usually weighed between 40 and 80 pounds, which is a lot of bananas. The bunches often broke on the backs of the workers, which would take a huge toll on said backs. Moreover, new diseases after World War II created a whole new set of chemical problems for workers, with the massive applications of increasingly high-powered fungicides meant to stop new diseases such as Black Sigatoka and Moko. All of this also drove small banana planters out of business and into the proletarian workforce as they simply could not afford the petrochemicals required to compete in the new global marketplace.

In the end, this is not a labor history that changed the world. There weren’t huge strikes here. Workers didn’t revolt in Honduras as they did in nations such as Colombia or Guatemala. But we also have to describe the reality of work that people face. Labor history is not just the history of strikes and revolts. It’s the history of the mundane awfulness of labor.

I borrowed from John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States in the writing of this post.

This is the 387th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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