- Bananeras: Women Transforming The Banana Unions of Latin America
In Bananeras: Women Transforming The Banana Unions of Latin America, U.S. labor historian Dana Frank shifts her focus to Latin America. She uses interviews and participant observation in Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica to chronicle the transformation of the Latin American banana industry and its impact on workers.
In the wake of Hurricane Mitch, Latin American banana union membership was at an all time low by the late 1990s. In response, banana workers began trying to revitalize, and reform, their unions.
While union reform is always difficult, Frank demonstrates that it is especially hard for female reformers. This is primarily a result of institutionalized [End Page 95] sexism. In some unions, bureaucratic rules and procedures exclude women from leadership, and in others, informal social networks among male staff and leaders isolate women.
To overcome their marginalization, female banana workers had to challenge exclusionary union policies and prepare themselves for leadership. They overcame the first barrier with the help of foreign funding. Throughout the 1990s, several European trade union federations provided funding to banana unions, much of it earmarked for women's projects. These funds, Frank argues, increased women's influence as male leaders grudgingly acknowledged their fund-raising and networking skills, and acceded to their demands for a greater voice in the union.
To prepare for leadership positions, female banana workers used 1960s-style consciousness-raising. At women-only meetings and retreats, they analyzed their life stories to understand how gender shapes all aspects of their lives. Frank believes that the knowledge and self-confidence participants gained through this process enabled them to understand and then challenge institutional sexism in their unions. Female banana workers also used "action research" to identify and train new leaders. When workplace surveys identified self-esteem, household dynamics, and leadership development as important to women members, they developed trainings on these issues, again made possible by European funding.
Frank simultaneously celebrates female banana workers' accomplishments and honestly assesses their shortcomings. Despite great odds, female banana unionists have challenged institutional sexism, recruited and developed a new generation of female labor leaders and begun contending with globalization's impact on their industry. Frank shows that in the process they have been transformed as well. Few banana workers' husbands and families supported their activism at first, and as their involvement deepened, many lost, or left, their husbands and male partners, souring many women on traditional relationships and/or traditional men. In response, some became celibate, others entered into casual and non-traditional relationships with men, and others pursued romantic relationships with women. It also motivated mothers to double their efforts to raise sons who believed in gender equality.
Despite its strengths, Frank's book has several shortcomings. Although she praises banana unions' efforts to educate members about neo-liberalism, she offers few specifics about how they did so. A detailed discussion and assessment of their tactics would have increased the book's usefulness to labor educators and union activists. Frank also fails to discuss ideological differences among banana union activists. Surely these divisions exist and have affected women's reform efforts, so it is curious that she fails to explore this issue. [End Page 96]
Bananeras embodies the sense of humor, passion, and fierce commitment to workers' rights that has characterized Frank's previous work. The accessibility of its prose, the timeliness of its subject matter, and its compelling narrative style make it well-suited to undergraduate teaching and labor studies credit courses on women and work, globalization and labor history. Bananeras is a "must-read" for scholars, labor educators, and union members alike.