Injured GM workers intensify fight for just settlement; are joined in appeal to CEO Mary Barra by autoworkers’ Union

​Former GM worker Manuel Ospina dramatized his quest for a fair settlement with GM with a renewed hunger strike and burial to his neck, in full view of the Colombian U.S. Embassy. (El Tiempo photo)

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA― On August 26, 2014, a group of autoworkers dismissed from General Motors after developing permanent disabling injuries on the job, dramatized their appeal for justice by burying injured worker Manuel Ospina in the ground, up to his neck. Ospina’s companions, Jorge Parra and Carlos Trujillo – also former assembly line workers at GM Colmotores, sewed their lips shut and vowed to not eat until GM agrees to meet to reach a just settlement. Thursday, Jorge Parra replaced Ospina in the ground. Their actions have attracted extensive media coverage in Colombia.

Support for the injured workers is growing, in Colombia and beyond. On August 5th, the leadership of the industrial union, SINTRAIME, emailed an appeal to GM CEO Mary Barra in support of the injured workers’ association, ASOTRECOL. The appeal was also critical of GM’s hiring procedures at the Colmotores plant which are in violation of the US-Colombia “Labor Action Plan.”

SINTRAIME at GM once represented 1,400 workers, but has seen its numbers reduced due to anti-union persecution. GM routinely used intimidation tactics to prevent workers who were hired on one-year contracts from joining the union, including having new hires sign paperwork promising not to and threatening that joining would result in their contracts not being renewed. ASOTRECOL members did not benefit from union protection.

Citing Barra’s June 5th statement informing GM employees to directly contact her, if necessary, regarding car safety issues – SINTRAIME President Felix Herrera wrote:

“When talking about the ignition switch fiasco, you said that GM has a ‘responsibility to act with integrity, honor and a commitment to excellence,’ and that ‘we are going to do the right thing for the affected parties.’ We ask that you extend this same commitment to the injured and former workers who contributed to GM’s success.”

GM has not responded. Other appeals in support of Asotrecol, including letters from over one hundred clergy, the Michigan Coalition of Human Rights, and 80 members of the British Parliament, have also been ignored.

This month marks the third anniversary of the tent encampment erected at the entrance of the U.S. Embassy by a handful of the hundreds of fired injured workers. One of them was 10-year employee Manuel Ospina whose job on the line required repetitively lifting 75 lb. sway bars. GM denies his injuries were work-related. X-rays reveal the screws surgically inserted into Ospina’s spinal column. The 44-year old man cannot walk without a cane. Disabled and denied workers compensation, he has watched his family slide into poverty and now faces foreclosure of their home.

“GM claims that the injuries were suffered on workers’ off-time, but the workers hardly hadoff-time,” says Paige Shell-Spurling, one of the lead organizers of the U.S. based solidarity campaign. “Spinal injuries from poor ergonomics and injuries from repetitive movements are common at GM Colmotores.” The plant operated mandatory shifts of 10-14 hours, 6 days a week. On Sundays, many of the workers including Ospina, Parra and Trujillo volunteered their services to GM’s community program, “GM Volunteers.” Instead of investing to improve the aging plant, local management made it a practice to force workers to work long hours and then illegally dismiss the injured workers and replace them with young new hires.

“These workers have been greatly mistreated by GM,” says Minister Jerrold Foltz, whose Virginia congregation, Wellspring UCC, has supported the injured workers for over two years. “It’s unconscionable that GM wouldn’t provide better for its employees.”

North American supporters are gearing up for a new round of solidarity actions to bring visibility to General Motors’ inhumane response to the injured Colombian GM workers. Past actions have included rallies at GM headquarters, coordinated protests at GM dealerships, the recent protest with “GM Recall Survivors” at the annual shareholders’ meeting, demonstrations in front of the homes of GM executives (including former CEO Daniel Akerson), and at annual auto shows, including Detroit’s.

Quoting from an August 26th letter to unions by Jorge Parra (translated from Spanish), “Today we complete 1120 days of resistance. We will continue our difficult struggle with the objective of making our situation visible internationally. Our goal is to achieve the recognition of our rights by General Motors.”

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X-ray of Manuel Ospina’s spinal column showing the consequences of his GM employment.