What role has organized labor played in creating better working conditions in the banana-growing regions of Costa Rica and Colombia?
Workers on banana plantations have organized again and again over the past century. Banana worker unions and strikes have played significant roles in their countries’ histories. Historian Charles Bergquist pointed out that when foreign companies employ local workers, worker radicalism may be supported by national anti-imperialist sentiment. This was certainly the case with the 1928 banana strike in Colombia. The company called in the Colombian army, which massacred hundreds or perhaps thousands of workers. The strike was crushed, but it became an iconic symbol of heroic resistance to foreign exploitation in Colombian historical memory. In Costa Rica and Cuba, where most of the United Fruit Company’s workers were foreign migrants, nationalism could cut the other way, and the company could benefit from anti-immigrant sentiment that undermined support for banana worker justice. It’s worth noting that even after over a century of struggle, banana workers remain marginalized and exploited, subject to grueling working conditions, low wages, and exposure to toxic pesticides—and in Colombia, especially, to violence when they try to change these conditions.
Are there more equitable ways to grow and consume bananas? What can we, as citizens of different countries and as consumers, do?
I like to remind my students that personal purification is the least effective form of political activism. Individual choices about consumption—like deciding to boycott bananas because of the violence and exploitation involved in their production—does exactly nothing to help the people involved. A boycott can be an effective tool when workers demand it to support specific goals. For example, the United Farm Workers organized a consumer boycott of iceberg lettuce and table grapes in the 1960s and 70s in order to pressure specific companies to recognize and negotiate with their union. That consumer boycott worked, and the companies signed contracts that substantially improved worker rights. But a decontextualized, individual boycott is more likely to harm than to help the workers who are already struggling under terrible conditions. Buying “fairtrade” bananas might also seem like a simple consumer solution, but the injustices in the banana industry are so vast that the “fair” label has also created much controversy.
If we want our bananas to be produced under fairer conditions, I think we have two avenues. One is to work directly in solidarity with workers and unions on the banana plantations. The other is to look at how U.S. government policies create and support conditions in Central America and Colombia that make it easy for companies to exploit workers there. Ending U.S. military aid to these countries might be the most effective way to reduce repression of workers and create spaces in which they can freely organize.
Reserved for itself the most succulent,
The central coast of my own land,
The delicate waist of the Americas.
It rechristened its territories,
As the "Banana Republics",
And over the sleeping dead,
Over the restless heroes
Who brought about the greatness,
The liberty and the flags,
It established a comic opera …
— PABLO NERUDA