Bananaland

Strike, 1954

Despite labour repression, it is still true that no Honduran president acts without testing what the workers will say. He may defy them, placate them, bribe them, repress them, but he cannot afford to ignore them.

Alison Acker

Alison Acker
The Making of A Banana Republic
1988

Having been irreversibly shaped by colonial forces since the early 16th century, 1950s Honduran society was characterized by a stark class divide between rich and poor. Wealthy landowners, while only 4% of the population, owned about 56% of arable land. The working farmer, or 65% of the population, owned less than 16%.23

A large majority of arable land was owned by fruit companies, and they kept about 75% unused.24 Those who needed land most had no access to it even though most of it sat empty or uncultivated. Honduran workers wanted land reform, but poor members of society had little to no say in politics or public affairs.

Asides from living in horrible working conditions, workers were upset when the United Fruit Company fired a worker for having dropped a bundle of bananas worth less than 10 cents.25 Then, the company refused to pay double for mandatory work on the Sunday of Holy Week, even though double pay was law.

May 5

Workers were unhappy and in April 1954 a strike began at Tela, demanding that the United Fruit Company give them a 50% pay hike. Over 36,000 banana workers went on strike, including those from United Fruit Company (Chiquita) and Standard Fruit (Dole).26 This was a huge percentage of Honduras’ entire labour force, and the strike had spread to various towns including Puerto Cortés, Lima, El Progreso, La Ceiba, and San Pedro Sula.

May 13

Workers at Rosario Mining Company, Coca-Cola, the Honduran Brewery, and the British American Tobacco Company had also joined. By this point, the number of strikers had reached a height of 50,000.27 Soon, students and teachers joined in solidarity, campesino families fed the strikers, telegraph workers cut communication lines, and everyone contributed to the strike fund.

May 16

Striking workers presented a petition to the manager of the United Fruit Company, J.F Aycock, citing the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and illustrating the violations they suffered daily on the plantations.28

May 18

Standard Fruit agreed to increase wages and improve working conditions for its workers– this was the first time a private corporation had ever negotiated with striking workers in Honduras to reach a mutual agreement. However, the United Fruit Company had still not responded to their strikers demands, and the number of striking workers went up to 100,000.29

July 9

The strike ended and workers returned to the United Fruit Company. The strike had lasted 69 days. While the strikers didn’t achieve everything they demanded, the company changed working conditions, agreed to provide medical care for the worker’s families, and gave them a 10-15% wage increase.

More importantly, the strikers had won official recognition of a United Fruit Workers Union, which led the way for the first Honduran labour code in 1959. 30 The strike exhibited the amount of power held by the people, and proved to the American fruit companies that their workers would not stand for injustice any longer.

Photo: United Fruit Company workers in the general strike of 1954, El Progreso, Honduras. Photo courtesy of Kevin Coleman and the Rafael Platero Paz Archive.