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January 9, 2006

History prof finds powerful women’s labor movement in Latin America

By Scott Rappaport

In 2001, history professor Dana Frank was asked by the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US/LEAP), a Chicago nonprofit, to develop a union label for the U.S. banana market.

Photo: Dana Frank
Dana Frank's new book is Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America.
Photo courtesy of Dana Frank

Frank signed on as a consultant and traveled to Central America to attend union workshops and regional conferences. She stayed with women banana workers in Honduras and went on road trips to Guatemala and Nicaragua to observe workshops designed for younger members of the union. Frank had meals with the workers and visited their packing plants and union offices.

As she conducted her research in Latin America, Frank fortuitously discovered a powerful, sophisticated, and highly successful network of women’s banana worker activism that is largely unknown to the rest of the world. The result is Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America (South End Press, 2005), a new book that traces the growth of this vital transnational labor movement.

“It’s an amazing story and I just happened into it,” said Frank, an expert on U.S. and international labor issues. “I didn’t go down there intending to write about it--I just went down to work with the banana unions, and I was stunned by all of the women’s projects. My book is about the history and development of these projects for gender equity and power in the banana unions, and how these women were able to build them and win the support of the men.”

There are now 40,000 unionized banana workers in Latin America, the majority of whom work for Chiquita in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia. Frank found that since the 1990s, the unions have formed two large national federations that hold regional conferences on important issues--such as how to negotiate contracts or navigate the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The unions also provide statistical and qualitative analyses of the situation of female workers.

“The unions date from the late 1950s and were traditionally about two-thirds men and one-third women,” said Frank. “Women were always a minority in the unions, but now they are in leadership roles--they’ve really changed the whole picture. People have these stereotypes of Latin American women as passive victims, but women banana workers are now having sophisticated conversations about gender roles that rival any discussion by students of feminist studies at UCSC.”

Frank noted that the women’s projects are always cast as making the unions more democratic and powerful, which is why the men support them. As she writes in the book’s introduction:

“The banana workers of Latin America offer a new model that explicitly integrates gender equity as part and parcel of any effective labor internationalism. They refuse to separate the global struggle against transnational corporations from the struggle at home for women’s equality and respect…They inspire us to envision a new labor internationalism that places women’s issues at the center of global class politics.”

Frank received the 1999 Book of the Year award from the International Labor History Association for her previous book Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism (Beacon Press, 1999). She is also the author of the books Purchasing Power, and coauthor—with Robin D. G. Kelley and Howard Zinn—of Three Strikes. Her writing has appeared in a number of newspapers and periodicals including the Washington Post and The Nation. Frank was presented with an Excellence in Teaching Award in 2001 by UCSC’s Academic Senate Committee on Teaching.

Bananeras is available at the Literary Guillotine in Santa Cruz, 204 Locust Street, (831) 457-1195, literaryguillotine.com, and other local independent bookstores, or by contacting South End Press at: (800) 533-8478, or www.southendpress.org.

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