Today we met with Paul Philome of the Batay Ouvriye, which translates as "Worker's Battle," a radical left coalition that coordinates workers, artisans, peasants and community organizations. Their biggest presence is in the north of the country, particularly in Cap-Haitian, where they organize workers in the free trade zone factories, most of which make apparel and things like baseballs.
Paul began by describing the difficulties the BO is facing with mobilizations. Their April 15th mobilization was blocked by the police, despite the fact that the Haitian Constitution specifically states that workers need only warn police of an upcoming demonstration, not ask permission. Finally the demonstration occurred on April 22nd, but the turn out was significantly smaller because of the change of dates. Their planned May Day actions in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitian have also been blocked, though the BO plans to go ahead with them regardless. When asking for more details Paul warned us against attending either of these as there are likely going to be confrontations with the authorities.
At that point we asked if we could film, but Paul declined, telling us that the authorities periodically clamp down on the BO and that images and interviews have been used against them. The government has blamed the BO and its leadership for vandalism and unrest and Paul stressed the importance of caution. We agreed not to film and took notes instead.
Paul then described his basic ideology of consciousness raising, advancing the workers' struggle, and accusing the Haitian government of being the lackeys of the employing class. He stated that the working class in Haiti has come to an impasse, where their misery is not only allowed but actually enforced to keep wages low and working conditions poor to maximize profits. As a result the authorities have an active stake in repressing the labor movement and have used paramilitary forces to repress workers. According to Paul this requires a radical reorganization of society to break down the walls that imprison the working class and to bring about a revolution, to "sever the umbilical cord" that connects the state to the people. The only question, for Paul, was "is there enough political consciousness to restructure society?" He believes that there is, particularly with the current unrest which forces workers to "remove the wool from their eyes."
He then went on to describe the legal obligation, within the Haitian Constitution, to raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. This promise has never been kept. The only adjustment to the minimum wage was over five years ago and was only a 5% increase despite 10% increase to the cost living. He said that inflation has now reached 100% or more. Given the dire situation, and lack of help from the state, the struggle has moved into the streets and the consciousness of the people has been raised to a point where radical change is possible.
When discussing similarities between the IWW's philosophy and that of the BO we recognized that neither of our organizations takes an official position in electoral politics. Paul told us that the BO will have relationships with some politicians who are part of their organization, when it can help the struggle, but will not support candidates. He then told a story of one of the BO's supporters who ran for senate because he believed that he could take the workers "fight" there, but was shot and left for dead by assassins and was forced to flee the country. He has since returned to Haiti and serves as the BO's attorney. Paul also mentioned that he himself had been shot in the leg, but differentiated between the authorities "shooting to deter" and "shooting to kill." He was only "shot to deter."
According to Paul the minimum wage is about $1.75 per day, which is supposed to cover transportation, gas (which in Haiti is about $5 per gallon), and meals. This leads to workers needing to take a shot of cheap, home made liquor at lunch, in place of a meal, to give them enough energy to get through the rest of the day. This has led to "le vie de clorox," or the life of bleach, which refers both to starvation pains and a means of suicide. One of his friends, Manu, had killed himself by drinking a bottle of bleach.
He believed that the wage worker has direct contact with capitalism, not the peasant or the artisan, and therefore it is the wage worker who must lead the revolution.
Paul had done extensive research on the IWW's website (www.iww.org) and had several questions for us. The first question that he asked was "why are you here?" We explained that our International Solidarity Commission had made contact with the CTH who invited us to Haiti in order to document the effects of neoliberalism. We also told him that is was our goal to help coordinate support, both material and in the form of solidarity, to help the struggle of Haitian workers, and finally in order that we might learn from the Haitian situation how to further our own struggles. He asked us three further questions about the IWW's philosophy, structure, and tactics which we decided to go into greater detail on in a later meeting.
While driving us back to St. Joseph's he told us how Venezuela donated asphalt to Haiti for the construction of roads (a much needed and missing part of the country's infrastructure as indicated by our trip to the Central Plateau) but that the government of Preval turned around and sold the asphalt to the Dominican Republic for their own profit. Also that the gas that Chavez gives is sold for profit as well.
Paul also invited us to a conference on organizing in Latin America which is being held by a group called ELAC (www.elac.org.br) which stands for Encuentro Latino Americano y Caribeno de Trabajadores. It's being held in Minas Gerais, Brazil on July 7th and 8th.