One Struggle: Can you give me a brief description of what Batay Ouvriye* is and a little bit of the history of it?
Batay Ouvriye: Batay Ouvriye is part of a whole current that had roots in Europe and the United States where many of the resistance, many of the leftist people, or many of the progressive militants were exiled from the country. So we organized a kind of line against Duvalier1 which was not the classical front. It was a class line against Duvalier.
They called us sectarian much of the time, but we weren’t sectarian, it’s a line. And we participated with many of those people. But we didn’t enter an organizational front, you see? But if they had a demonstration we were always there.
I was neither in the States nor in Europe. I met the people of this current in Haiti because I was in Haiti participating in the throwing away of Duvalier and everything. I have to say I had the line also of the working class. So on the ground in the factories and in the working class I met with the current. Together and with others we became the current of Batay Ouvriye.
It’s a whole movement. We have unions in factories. We have clandestinely organized workers in factories. We have workers in industrial production and local production. We have, also, workers in little atelye, little production of ten workers only.
OS: Small workshops?
BO: Small workshops, exactly. We also have peasants, small peasants’ organizations and associations of little owners but also the demwatye, share craft, how do you say? Sharecroppers.
OS: So they pay…
BO: Half to the owner of the land.
BO: Exactly, which is another relationship because they are not owners of the land. We also have organizations in neighborhoods and associations of artisans like machinists or carpenters. You have those kinds of organizations also. We also have organizations in the university. But all of it is Batay Ouvriye. To explain the line of the current… of course union Batay Ouvriye is clear, it’s easy to understand but the association of little peasants is also Batay Ouvriye. Association of poor neighborhoods is Batay Ouvriye. And now the explanation is that we know that the chief director of the enemy camp is capital. We know historically, we see it in the minimum wage for instance. We see the President, we see the Cabinet, we see the Executive, we see Parliament, we see Police. We see that they are all with the bourgeoisie. We also see that the Ministry of Labor are always with the bourgeoisie. And we see in the practice, so now in the agit/prop with the workers that the chief is not the President, is not the Parliament, it is the bourgeoisie. It’s always capital. And in front of capital, in the direct front of capital [facing it] is the working class, is the proletariat.
So that’s why if you understand that first, then second with penetration and the hard domination of capital there is a process of proletarianization. A dynamic of proletarianiazation. From small peasants, small artisans, for poor students they will be proletarian. So there is also a dynamic to the working class, to the laborers, you see?
So that’s why if you understand the chief of the enemy and the process, you will see that Ouvriye, the working class proletarian is the direct enemy [of capital], and that the name Batay Ouvriye is, in fact, a demonstration or an explanation by itself of the line that we have. Popular fronts among classes are very nebulous and in fact are always the petty bourgeoisie. When there is a front like that, it is in the petty bourgeois direction.
We say that we are in all the popular masses’ fight, but with the workers as central, and the laborers, the proletarian as its direction. That’s our movement and that’s Batay Ouvriye.
OS: Can you explain some of the more important or higher profile struggles Batay Ouvriye has engaged in since its creation?
BO: Okay. Well, the first one that we always lost is having unions in the textile sector. During ten years we militate in the factories everywhere in the country. For instance we have now six unions in six factories with nobody in the union. Because here, you, with eleven people you can make a union. Okay?
OS: Is that a law in Haiti?
BO: In Haiti, it’s a labor code to have a union. You have to have the statutes of the union, the by-laws, the constitution and so on. You know, a lot of papers. You give it to the ministry of labor and it gives you recognition. You are a union and a number and you can function as a union.
Okay. We have that. We have 60 members, 150 members in the factories of six hundred people or one thousand. When they begin to communicate, they fire everybody. Everybody. Not only the committee, everybody.
OS: Including non-union workers?
BO: No, no, no.
OS: Just the union?
BO: It’s to signal to the others. Even if the labor code protects unions, the constitution and we have registration from the ministry, blah blah blah, nothing. So during these ten years we have been fighting … so that’s why we’ve had clandestine organizations of workers for a long time.
Okay, that was a movement fight, that was the first, but we’ve never reached an organization of mass. Something, but not a mass organization
BO: The second fight is as a part of SOKOWA2, in CODEVI3, Ouanaminthe. We had an opportunity because the CODEVI, it’s a Dominican owner, which is a little bit more difficult for them. You know, it’s the kind of, “Ayai, Dominican!” okay? And, but the most important is because the real owner is the finance of the World Bank. Yeah, it’s the World Bank’s money. It’s financial imperialism. But the World Bank has, supposedly, laws and codes of conduct and things like that. It opens us up for a more accurate and possible fight because it is international, you see? We could attack the World Bank and the first free trade zone in Haiti.
A lot of the noise was also from the United States, from Canada, FTQ, AFL-CIO, and Belgium FGTB, or Brazil Con Lutas. We don’t know how yellow those unions are but they are losing jobs, you see? They have an interest, concrete interest in raising the capacity of the working class in countries like ours, you see what I mean? So they participate also.
It gives us another kind of force, another level of capacity. For example, when 370 people were all fired we had an international mobilization. We had work stoppages. For two hours, a half day, a whole day, blah blah blah, and a denunciation of the World Bank. Not only CODEVI but the World Bank, Hanes, Levis. Against Gilden in Canada with the FTQ, the federation of Quebec, you see? We won that fight. They had to reintegrate all of the people fired with half of the money for the six months. We discussed all of the money but they said half so we had to compromise because we also entered [achieved] another gain: the obligation of the owner to allow collective bargaining. In SOKOWA we now have collective bargaining. So that was, I think, a very important victory.
The third one I will talk about is in Gwasimal, in a rural area, where they have bitter orange for Cointreau, the liqueur. When Cointreau, through a Haitian intermediary, bought the land, the contract was verbal because the peasants didn’t know how to read. Because the peasants didn’t want to sell the land they would say “Okay, but what am I going to do? I don’t have any more land.” And Cointreau would say, “You will work for me. You will become an agricultural worker on the orange field.” Big, big, big field. Four hundred and fifty families. Many people.
But the peasants also said, “Yeah, but, the orange season is six months. The other six months?” They replied “Okay, no problem. Your family will be able to have the land and to have this or that. Corn, peas or bananas or whatever you want. But when the orange is ready, you stop everything and you work,” They agreed. Very well. But what happened in the next generation?
This was in 1948. The peasants agreed but after one generation he had three sons, they all work in the orange field. Wait, okay, who will have the land, which is very small? This one or this one or this one?
Cointreau had watchmen. What they say, they have eight watchmen, in all the fields. And, let’s say, many other under watchmen. They have a whole system of surveillance. They had a kind of state on the Cointreau land. Those watchmen would say to the peasants “I give you land. Not him, not him. I’ll give you the land, but you have to give me half.”
OS: So they divided the peasantry by selecting certain favored peasants?
BO: Yes. Those other two went to Dominican Republic or to Miami or to anywhere … Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haïtien . But when they came back they would have accept sharecropping. By the third generation the watchmen controlled the land.
Through our contact with other unions that are in Cap-Haïtien in orange, in coffee, or mango, et cetera, we began penetrating this area. We made the first union of peasants working in oranges for the six month orange season. We fought for raises, also they didn’t have gloves and the oranges have thorns. There were also bees that they have to protect themselves from, you see what I mean? We waged those kinds of fights and we won those fights. Raise of salary, they were given ladders.
During the other six months we organized an association of peasants but with the same people, the same families. They said, “We are not going to sharecrop.”
OS: So they were seizing control of the land?
BO: … Of their land. This was a big fight. The watchmen came with other peasants from all over the place to occupy the land during that six months. We had to go there, discuss, go to the places where they came from to see them there. We had to organize a battle plan. It was very hard, a big, big, big battle. When the next orange season ended we organized a mobilization to take the land.
But we found ourselves with fifty people armed. Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-ta-ta-ta. We had people die.
OS: They opened fire on you?
BO: Yes, we had two people die.
OS: And these people who were armed, were they from the company?
BO: From the company Cointreau. From the intermediary of the company in Cap-Haïtien, Zephir, and a lot of motherfucker Haitians. But also the land owners of all the regions. Of course, cause that example [of resistance] was bad. No more sharecropping, you’re crazy! They organize resistance there, and armed people. Who fought. The fight lasted eight months. Really: hiding, attacking, a war.
And we won that fight. Eight months, they didn’t have use of the land, they survived this way, with families. The other peasants could not enter either, because we block that, the fight against Cointreau. You see? A lot of things we have. Manda* when they give to arrest you.
OS: A warrant?
BO: Yeah, yeah, something like that. The justice make a, “you have to arrest, this…”
OS: It’s an arrest warrant.
BO: An arrest, police come to arrest you. Me and others, we had to hide. Fight, big, big, big, big fight for the land. And at the end, Cointreau, and Zephir in Cap-Haïtien, the intermediary, they give the people without sharecropping, and now it’s without sharecropping.
Another is the minimum wage of 200 Goud.
OS: Right. When I went to the University a couple of days ago I saw a lot of political graffiti for the 200 Goud.
BO: That’s because we organized and that’s why you saw all those people this morning and yesterday when we were at the University and others that have already finished university. It was in 2009, three years ago. Five years ago we went to the University and started doing lessons, conferences and debates about this or that. This concept or that concept and they began to realize all of the disorientation. They came with us in the 200 Goud battle even though their place was the University. They participated in the mobilization of the workers that you could see in the photo at our place. You saw the photo with the big mobilization in the Batay Ouvriye local office?
Not only that, but the students also made mobilization by themselves. Not only were they with the workers but they made also by themselves. They also intervened in the media and did many other things. You could say that this is a kind of organization and a victory to reach this articulation with the students and also the working class.
And so that the last one after the 200 Goud–maybe we are not going to talk too much because maybe you know about it–we had to organize this more or less big mass movement sometime with 20,000 people in the streets blocking all, during 2 weeks. all the textile production. in Port-au-Prince.
OS: When was this?
BO: 2009. Maybe you know about the law that raised the minimum wage from 70 Goud to 200 Goud? Preval instead said 125 and blocked the 200 Goud.
We had to fight. We lost that fight but we won, why? Because the last adjustment to the minimum wage was in 1995 and the 200 Goud was in 2009. 14 years. We didn’t reach 200 Goud but because of the fight Préval had to respond and offer raising the minimum wage in [after another] 5 years. We demanded 3 years. Not only that, but we fought to make the state recognize that the minimum wage is not something that you just dream up and say, “It’s 200 Goud.” It is something that you can calculate. This is the minimum. To eat, to transport children to school, to pay for a house.
We did mobilizations to force the government to calculate. When they did, their calculations they found that the minimum rate was 300 Goud. We countered with 450 but also made the argument that they were only giving us 125! That’s why today in 2012, after 3 years of mobilization we have not only 200 Goud but 300 Goud.
After that we began working with our clandestine workers’ organizations, and after those mobilizations we began thinking that we could start a union. We decided not to put a union in that factory and another union in that factory. We decided to make a union of the entire textile sector. That’s SOTA, Textile and Apparel Worker’s Union. One union because it was a united mobilization.
But you know what happened? The bosses organized three supposed meetings of Batay Ouvriye with my name, organizing mobilizations and meetings. It was false. Many people went, and the bosses took all the names of the organizers and fired 350 people. They were our best organizers. We had 1.5 to 2 years where it was impossible for us to go to the factories, not only to organize, but even to make leaflets. Workers were afraid of us. There were also objective difficulties for the workers, they were dying. Of course the situation was very bad for them.
So they organized themselves again and eventually we could enter again, and with that we were able to make SOTA. We have now the union in the textile. The first fight is when we made SOTA.
And finally, MINUSTAH is the backup of the project of the textile factories in their exploitation of the working class, one of the lowest paid in the world. MINUSTAH is the real backup of the project of the Clinton mafia and the bourgeoisie. In Haiti the exploitation of one of the cheapest labor forces in the world is backed up by MINUSTAH.
OS: Can you explain what MINUSTAH is and how long they’ve been here? Also talk a little about the demonstration we went to today.
BO: Well, MINUSTAH is the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. They call themselves a mission for peace, but we say that they are the mission for peace in the cemetery. That is because they are killing people, they are repressing the neighborhoods. It’s a long story to explain the real relationship between the Haitian people and MINUSTAH. They have been in Haiti for eight years and haven’t contributed to anything. They only contribute to maintaining the status quo. To keep it like it is, poor.
Because you know when Duvalier got kicked out there was a dynamic, a movement for change. Now we’ll have democracy, now we’ll have liberty, now we’ll have change. Now we might have the opportunity. That has all been totally reduced. For instance you see now that Duvalier has come back, and all of that is possible because of the backup given by MINUSTAH. It is a completely reactionary force.
The contradiction is that the MINUSTAH is supposedly coming from the leftist governments of Latin America. It was Lula is Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Lugo in Paraguay. Brazil is the head of the MINUSTAH. But little by little, you could see it this morning, the real chief of the MINUSTAH are the Americans. We saw that clearly after the earthquake. When the earthquake happened, MINUSTAH couldn’t function and the US sent the Marines and they took control, you see? And now the American Embassy is in total control of the situation. I don’t know who the Brazilian General is, before you knew it was Lebado because it was in the newspapers and on television. We always knew. But now it is the American Embassy.
Clearly now you can see that the mission of MINUSTAH is maintaining the status quo. That’s because the dominant classes in Haiti don’t have solutions. In fact, they exploit so much that the workers are in a complete state of misery. They cannot sustain themselves. It is an explosive situation so they have to control it. MINUSTAH is more capable than the police or the Haitian army at controlling the situation. Also, now the American army can enter whenever they want. Because MINUSTAH is a mission of the UN they have to authorization to enter but the Americans can send 20,000 Marines tomorrow if they like.
MINUSTAH is also itself an armed force of over 20 countries, some of them sending 50 people, some 100, 200. It’s nothing for a country to have 50 more people tomorrow. So MINUSTAH is between 9 and 12 thousand people but it can be 25,000 in one week. For comparison, in Haiti you have a combined army and police force of 12,000, you see? For the government to double the size of that repressive force would take 100 years! For recruitment and preparation, armament, to pay the force, the uniform, the boots it would take a long time. MINUSTAH can have it in one week. That’s why we say the MINUSTAH, which is clearly with the dominant classes and for the status quo, blocked this dynamic of change and set us back. That is why it is one of our principle targets and a target of all the Haitian people.
That’s why you saw the mobilization this morning because it is the 15th of October when they signed the renewal of the MINUSTAH contract with the UN. So that’s why the date and the mobilization this morning with other allied organizations. You saw all the anger of the people in the street and in the cars? “MINUSTAH! You have to go! Leave the country!” Little by little we believe we are reaching the point where there is a possibility of getting rid of this reactionary force.
1 * From the Haitian Kreyol meaning Worker’s Struggle
The Duvaliers was a family of dictators ruling Haiti from 1957 – 1986.
** From the French SOKOWA is a trade union in Haiti.
Compagnie de Développement Industriel, or Industrial Development Company, a free trade zone in the border city of Ouanaminthe, Haiti.