In recognition of the extraordinary courage, strength and solidarity of Liberian rubber workers at one of the world’s largest rubber plantations, we are proud to nominate the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) for the 2007 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.
On July 7, 2007, for the first time in the company’s 82-year existence in Liberia, the more than 4,000 workers at the Firestone Rubber Plantation Company elected union leaders in a free and fair election. International observers, including representatives of the United Steelworkers (USW) and the Solidarity Center, monitored the election at the invitation of an Ad Hoc Election Commission created by the Liberian government. Workers overwhelmingly elected a reform slate of democratic and independent union leaders for FAWUL.
The workers’ victory came not without sacrifice. After more than 14 years of civil war, Liberians elected a new democratic government, led by the first woman president in Africa, in October 2005. The workers at Firestone welcomed the new government and saw it as an opportunity for change in their lives at the plantation. Through a series of wildcat strikes, the workers succeeded in getting the government of Liberia to require new elections at the plantation. During the strikes, workers were intimidated and beaten. Tragically, several workers were killed. Workers who managed to survive on pittances were living without pay and rice subsidies. The commitment of the workers to freedom of association and the right to organize was strong, and they remained unified in their actions.
The living and working conditions at the plantation are brutal, with management routinely violating basic trade union rights. Rubber tappers work 14-hour days to meet impossible production quotas, which require them to tap 750 rubber trees and to accumulate 150 pounds of latex daily. Pay amounts to little more than $3 a day and a monthly 100-pound bag of subsidized rice if quotas are met. Tappers walk for miles with more than 75 pounds of rubber in metal buckets on their backs, and the company fails to provide them with basic safety equipment.
Although the July 2007 elections were certified as free and fair, the plantation management refused to recognize the new union leadership and engage in collective bargaining. FAWUL’s new leadership, however, carried on union activities without salaries, as management refused to release the union dues they continued to collect from the workers. The courageous plantation workers continued their solidarity, providing rice and money to their leaders to provide for their families. On Dec. 6, 2007, the rubber workers went on strike to protest Firestone’s refusal to recognize their leaders. Once again, workers were beaten, disciplined and fired. Finally, on Dec. 21, 2007, Liberia’s Supreme Court issued a decision recognizing the results of the union elections. This ruling was a landmark victory for democratic and independent unions. Firestone management recognized the new union leadership after the Supreme Court decision, and negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement have begun.
The USW, the AFL-CIO, ICEM and other international unions supported FAWUL’s struggle. It was a true example of international union solidarity. The victory of FAWUL and its members is also a victory for democracy in Liberia. FAWUL set an example for all of Liberia about the power of collective action and what can be accomplished through unity.
For its dedication to fighting for the freedom of association and workers’ rights, the AFL-CIO is pleased to nominate FAWUL for the 2007 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.