The New Face behind Unionized (and Feminist) Bananas in Latin America

Source: Labor is Not a Commodity

More and more women in the global labor rights movement continue to impress us all with their resilience and passionate fight for gender equality in our unions and organizations. In the last few years, women in the banana unions across Latin America have upped the ante. Bananeras, as they are dearly called, have achieved victories we can only dream of in the U.S., including clauses in their union contract that allows them to take a paid day off for a mammogram and/or a pap smear, union-wide campaigns with workshops against domestic violence, as well as union-led campaigns against HIV/AIDS with a focus on reproductive justice and accessibility to healthcare for all women in their communities. Not to mention the fact that ALL local banana unions have a women’s committee. 

Well, let’s add another triumph for women everywhere: newly-elected by the Coordination of Latin American Banana Unions, Iris Munguia, General Coordinator of more than 45,000 workers in eight countries across the region! Iris was named coordinator of COLSIBA during its XI Conference in August 2011. She is the first woman to be elected to lead COLSIBA since its founding in 1993. The fact that Iris was elected for this important position illustrates the great progress that unions in Latin America have made regarding the representation of women.

I’m sure I don’t speak for myself when I say that Iris is the kind of leader every woman strives to be. Everything about her demeanor says luchadora, yet she emanates so much kindness and wisdom. She’s precise and strategic about her work and how it affects banana and agriculture workers everywhere, especially women workers. She’s a globetrotter unionist and a single mother. And did I mention she has an impeccable fashion sense?

Iris is anything but “new” to the struggles of banana workers in Latin America. Born on a Chiquita banana plantation, Iris began as a rank-and-file worker at the Indiana packing plant in La Lima, Honduras. Her work, fairness, honesty and belligerent defense of the rights of her peers led to her 1994 election as the first-ever female Secretary of her union SITRATERCO (est. 1954). In 1995, Iris’ leadership and advocacy for women’s rights was once again recognized and she was elected Regional Coordinator of the Women’s Committees of COLSIBA. She served as Sub-Coordinator of COLSIBA prior to the 2011 union elections.

Along with other women unionists from Central America, Iris helped STITCH develop a collaborative women’s leadership training manual to expand its training capacity and systemize its work. The curriculum offers a feminist perspective to training women workers and building their leadership capacity. Completed in 2007, it is still being widely used by COLSIBA and other unions in the region.

As the new general coordinator of COLSIBA, Iris hit the ground running. COLSIBA has organized a global meeting of women workers from the banana sector to be held in Ecuador this February, where women workers are invited to share experiences and discuss how the unions can better support them. It’s expected that these needs will then be shared with all stakeholders at the Second Conference of the World Banana Forum. The World Banana Forum (WBF) is the voice for the global banana sector, convening leaders from the entire supply chain. No other platform brings together all the players – workers and producers, multinationals, retailers, certifying bodies, researchers, NGOs, governments and UN agencies– in common pursuit of a more sustainable banana sector.

At a time when the banana sector faces one of its largest threats in history as its unionization rate declines, it is more important than ever for U.S. consumers to stay up to date on the struggles of banana workers and their unions in Latin America. After all, nearly all bananas consumed in the U.S. come from plantations in Latin America and bananas continue to be the most profitable item sold by grocery stores.

Supermarkets like Wal-Mart are now working as wholesalers, buying their bananas directly from non-unionized independent producers. In the race to the bottom, unionized banana plantations- who pay better wages, provide healthcare and other benefits- cannot compete with the low sale prices of non-unionized banana plantations. Fair trade certified bananas have recently become a hot commodity (even the multinational corporation Dole has a line of FT bananas sold in the U.S.) and while they may meet the environmental certifications necessary, most come from non-unionized plantations where workers are not provided with benefits nor paid wages similar to those of a worker from a unionized plantation. Boycott bananas? Our partners on the ground have not called for an international boycott of bananas, and actions like these ultimately further affect banana workers and their unions without calling attention to the real problems.

Doesn’t a union label for bananas and other produce sound great right about now? Unfortunately, we’ve got a long way to go until that happens. In the meantime, enjoy your bananas, but don’t forget about the nearly 300,000 workers who made it possible for you to buy bananas at your local grocery. Support the development and sustainability of stronger banana unions and their women’s committees. Follow and support the struggles and victories of Iris and COLSIBA in 2012. Demand higher standards and benefits for workers from the fair trade movement. Continue to stand up to Wal-Mart, Dole, and other companies that continue to depreciate the rights of workers in the global economy. Talk to your state representatives about the need for new trade rules and the negative affects of current trade agreements being felt by all workers. It’s an uphill battle, but a battle we can win through real solidarity.

Check out Iris and other bananeras in STITCH’s documentary, “Pushing Back: Women Workers Speak Out on Trade.”