10/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

USW Helps Empower Workers on Firestone Plantation in Liberia

Just off the coast of Liberia, an African country founded by freed American slaves, is the largest rubber tree plantation in the world, where, until last month, Bridgestone Corp, a Fortune 500 company that pocketed a profit of $1.16 billion last year, paid its 10,300 workers between $2.65 and $3.38 a day. Not an hour. A day.

In a 1990 interview with a New York Times reporter, Terry J. Renninger, then president of the Firestone Synthetic Rubber and Latex Company, a Bridgestone/Firestone division that leased the 1 million square mile farm from Liberia, described it this way: "The best way to think of it is an old Southern plantation."

That's right. A Southern slave-holding plantation, a place from which the original Liberians would have escaped. So thoughtful of Bridgestone/Firestone to replicate it for them in their country of liberation.

That's not hyperbole. A non-profit group in Liberia called The Save My Future Foundation investigated conditions at the plantation in 2005 and wrote a report entitled, "Firestone: The Mark of Modern Slavery."

This is what unrestrained, immoral and disloyal multinational corporations have reduced us to: modern slavery. They've forced pay down worldwide by transferring manufacturing from one low wage nation to the next lower wage nation.

We can shrug our shoulders and accept this wage race to the bottom, while corporations and corporate executives continue to grow wealthy from the profits squeezed from our paychecks, pensions and benefit packages...or we can do something about it.

To stop it, workers must embrace our similarities and stand together in solidarity. That is what the United Steelworkers, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center and the workers at the Bridgestone/Firestone plantation did. Together, we achieved the election of independent union officers to represent the Liberian rubber workers, a just and dignified labor contract and hope for a future without bounds. It is an example of what can be accomplished to pull all workers up if we link arms.

The USW involvement began with a letter. While investigating the plantation, representatives of Save My Future urged dissidents there to write unionists in the United States for help. Eleven sent a letter to the AFL-CIO. President John Sweeney forwarded that letter to USW International President Leo W. Gerard because the steelworkers represent Firestone workers in the U.S.
Gerard assigned me to investigate the child labor and environmental law abuses alleged in the letter. I took with me Harmon Lisnow, who then was director of a labor management training program for the Steelworkers but who served in Liberia in the Peace Corps in the 1960s and still had contacts there, as well as a Firestone worker and representatives of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. It was almost exactly three years ago, July of 2005.

On the first day, we got an official tour of the plantation. We saw an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, modern two-story brick homes complete with normal Western amenities like plumbing and electricity. In these, company managers live. We saw workers tap rubber trees, but we were prevented from speaking with them. This made us suspicious.

The next morning, before dawn, we slipped away from our hotel in Monrovia and evaded guards to tour the plantation without official company guides. Then we found the plantation the overlords had tried to prevent us from seeing, the one described in the letter and The Mark of Modern Slavery report.

Workers live in squalor. They reside in the same lean-to huts the company constructed in 1926 when the plantation was founded by Harvey Firestone. They've got no electricity or plumbing. They share outhouses and a community pump. In the dry season, if the pump does not draw water, they drink from the creeks and rivers, many of which Save My Future Foundation says Firestone has polluted. They are posted against fishing because of the toxicity.

Workers earned $3.38 a day if they tapped 750 trees, collected the latex in two 75 pound buckets, and carried it for miles on their shoulders to weigh stations. The weight, to ensure that their daily wages wouldn't be halved, needed to total 150 pounds, a mind-bending, shoulder deforming amount. Because this task is a physical impossibility for one person in a day's time, most tappers enlist their spouses and children as helpers. Whole families work 12 hour days to fulfill Firestone's demands for 75 pound buckets of latex. The spouses and children, of course, are not on the official payroll. That is how Firestone says with a straight face that it does not "employ" children and that the "hiring" of children violates company policy.

Like in the American south of the early 1900s, schools are separate and unequal. Those for the black workers lack teachers and books and supplies. Youngsters may not attend unless they have birth certificates, which the company-owned hospital failed to issue during the 14 year Liberian civil war. They may be purchased, but at half a month's salary, precious few workers can afford them. This is another way children are forced into labor.

We also found a company union. This is a union that the company controls to its benefit. In this case, the UN found that Firestone, which hand-picked union officers had "compromised" their independence, so that that they were unable to advocate properly for the workers. Within hours of our unapproved tour's commencement, company security officers surrounded our jeeps and escorted us off the plantation. But we had what we came for, first hand stories and the photographs. The next day, a company official showed up unannounced at our hotel and demanded I relinquish the film. I refused. I told him told him the only way he would get the pictures was to go to the U. S. Embassy. We quickly made arrangements to leave the country. Though we feared we'd be searched and the photos confiscated at the airport, we managed to escape the country with our evidence of corporate depravity.

Six months later, in January of 2006, workers on the plantation engaged in something forbidden -- a wildcat strike. They demanded better working conditions and elections for union officers who would represent their best interests. When the USW heard about it, our Firestone workers took plant gate collections to help support their brothers and sisters in Liberia. The Liberian workers needed money to buy rice and other food rations while on strike, and our collections helped. The money also partially subsidized union training.

The government of Liberia intervened to help settle the strike. Firestone agreed to improve housing, medical facilities, and schools. Once it was clear that a solid group of activists was ready to challenge the leadership of their union, the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL), the USW and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center sent trainers to Liberia. In the Fall of 2006, we trained the aggrieved workers committee on union structure and elections.

In the spring of 2007, the workers struck again demanding union leadership elections. During a demonstration, there was a melee in which a worker was killed and others were beaten and tear gassed. The assailants remain unknown and unprosecuted. Ultimately, again, the government intervened and a date was set for union elections. On July 7, 2007 ballots were distributed across the plantation. Because so many workers are illiterate, having been denied educational opportunities, the ballots contained photographs of the candidates seeking to represent them. The USW and the Solidarity Center were there to ensure fairness. The group of officers put forward by the aggrieved workers committee won by a large margin. Still, the struggle was not over. The General Agricultural and Allied Workers Union of Liberia challenged the election results in court, attempting to reinstate the Firestone-supported officers.

By December, when the workers still didn't have a decision, they struck again. Another worker was killed. Many others were beaten and arrested. Finally, on Dec. 21, 2007 the Liberian Supreme Court ordered Firestone to recognize the new union officers. This occurred because the country had a president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and new minister of labor, Samuel Kofi Woods, who would not stand for the corruption of the past. International organizations, including the United Nations, made it clear they were watching. And the AFL-CIO and the USW, including Leo W. Gerard himself, applied every bit of pressure they could. Firestone workers in the US continued to donate money to support the Liberian workers, this time for training to negotiate with Bridgestone/Firestone.

Talks began early in 2008. Firestone officials told the workers to present them with a contract proposal and then were surprised by the sophistication of what they got. By summer, when they'd reached a contract both sides generally agreed upon, Firestone objected to the union officers' plan to present it to the workers to ratify - an accepted union practice. That had not been done by the company-union. The company had control then.

The newly elected union officers insisted. Workers would have the last say, not officers. Workers approved the contract earlier this month. It gives them a 24 percent wage increase retroactive to the expiration of their previous agreement in January of 2007; a 20 percent reduction in the daily tree quota for tapping, and mechanized transportation for conveying latex to weigh stations so tappers no longer must walk for miles carrying 150 pounds yoked to their backs.

This will change their lives. And the lives of their children, many of whom hopefully will no longer have to work alongside them on the plantation to meet the quotas. They will be able to go to school instead. It is proof that they have a union now that requires management to treat them with dignity and respect.

In October, 2006, during the second trip that the USW made to the plantation, several of the Liberian union activists made it clear to us that is what they wanted. Mike Zielinski, a member of our strategic campaigns, global bargaining and international affairs department, went on that trip to conduct training, right about the time the USW went on strike against Goodyear in the U.S. He and several of the activists were distributing rice and other rations to families near a health clinic operated by the company when the head of security drove up and demanded to know what Zielinski was doing there. Zielinski gave his name and identified himself as a member of the United Steelworkers. The guard, a man from Mississippi, immediately began yelling, "Oh, Shit! The USW is here? Oh Shit! Oh Shit!" After he drove off, one of the activists told Zielinski, that was the kind of union the Liberian workers wanted, the kind where all you had to do was say the name and it drove the company into frenzy.

These workers suffered though wildcat strikes, tear gassings, beatings, the deaths of fellow workers to achieve a strong union and a fair contract. And they have, in turn, made a commitment to the USW. At our international convention in July, FAWUL leaders thanked USW members for our support and promised FAWUL members would reciprocate if ever needed. Workers are brothers and sisters. We must pull each other up.