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Colombia's Unions: Under Attack and Fighting Back

By Meredith Aby

Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. On average, right-wing paramilitary death squads or the military murder three Colombian trade unionists a week. Many more are threatened each day. At the same time the U.S. has given more than $3 billion in military aid, which funds both the military and paramilitary war on Colombian trade unionists, human rights workers and campesinos (peasants).

In July, the Colombia Action Network (CAN) sent a solidarity delegation of anti-war and student activists to meet with representatives from the Colombia trade unions, including the CUT, Colombia's largest labor federation; USO, the oil workers' union; the Bogota teachers' union and SINALTRAINAL, the beverage workers' union which is fighting at Coca-Cola plants. The goal of the delegation's two-week visit was to stand in solidarity with the people of Colombia and investigate the effects of the U.S. military aid package, Plan Colombia. The delegation saw the effects first hand. Two unions had members killed the same day the delegation visited them.

Government Repression

In addition to extralegal violence, the Colombian government is also waging a war by 'legal' means. The Colombian Congress passed the new Democratic Security Act, similar to the U.S. Patriot Act. It legalizes the indefinite detention of people the government labels 'suspected terrorists,' these people then lose their rights to formal accusations, to bail and to being considered innocent until proven guilty. Every trade union and social movement organization the delegation talked to expressed concern about this new law. They explained while these acts of repression were standard practice for the armed forces and police in the past, but at least when such activities were illegal, activists could use the legal system to fight the unlawful detention and imprisonment of their fellow compañeros and compañeras. Now the government has given itself these new powers legally under the guise of 'anti-terrorism' legislation.

Activists and trade unionists in Colombia specifically blamed the Bush administration for these new repressive policies. They said that post 9-11, the Colombian government, especially under the current president Alvaro Uribe, has been given clear direction from the U.S. to use whatever means necessary in order to fight against both leftists and rebels.

Domingo Tovar, director of human rights for the CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores), layed out the political situation for us on our first day in Bogota, “There’s an annual 30,000 dead each year. Only 7% are killed in combat between the two forces. One hundred sixty kids die daily due to poor health and nutrition and the rest of the deaths are the responsibility of the state. The government is the primary violator of human rights. There are more than 12,000 members of the armed forces who are devoted to violating human rights and paramilitarism.”

He continued, “Colombia is the country with the most assassinations of union members in the world. Under the administration of Uribe, the current president, there's been more than 160 union deaths. This year there’s been 29, including a compañero this morning. Under Uribe there's been more than 700 illegal arrests. Under the new anti-terrorism statute it gives judicial police the power to investigate, capture and condemn. The CUT has more than 100 members in jail and more than 500 are in exile. The violation of human rights will increase due to the application of Plan Colombia or Plan Patriotica, and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Because of that, please send a message to the U.S. to not continue this war on Colombia.”

As Tovar points out, the U.S. is supporting the Uribe government for its own purposes. The U.S. gives $3 million in military aid per day to Colombia because the U.S. has plans for the country and the region. The U.S. wants Colombia to be a part of its free trade vision for the hemisphere. The U.S. wants its corporations to be able to sell their goods cheaply in Colombia and for their products to be made cheaply there as well. However, in order for the FTAA and other free trade agreements to pass and be implemented, several conditions need to change. Colombia's strong labor movement and rebel armies are in deep opposition to these policies. Additionally, Colombia lacks the infrastructure for free trade. So the U.S.’s military aid is used to train the military in torture and in to wage warfare against the guerillas. The U.S. military aid is also being used to guard Occidental Oil's pipeline in Arauca and to guard the highways being built for multi-national trade.

Fighting for Control of Oil

By law, the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, used to handle 50-70% of the nation’s oil production. Six years ago, under the previous president, the law was changed to give 70% to multi-national corporations. This change decreased the amount of revenue the state earns from oil production and it increased taxes for Colombians. It also meant more profits for foreign oil companies like Occidental Oil and BP Amoco.

In May, the oil workers union, USO, completed one of the most important strikes in Colombia’s recent history. The government, acting on behalf of multi-national corporations and World Bank pressure, wanted to sell off its national industries, including Ecopetrol. The government purposefully sabotaged the oil company’s economic viability to justify selling it to foreign companies. Had this plan for privatization succeeded, it would have robbed the Colombian people of an important source of wealth, and it would have placed one of Colombia’s most valuable resources, oil, in the hands of foreign corporations. It would have killed the nation’s most militant union.

The battle began this past spring when the Colombian government instituted layoffs that violated the union contract and directly targeted the leadership of the oil workers union. USO responded with a 36-day strike to fight against further layoffs, against the privatization of the oil company, and for the right to have a union. 70 to 80% of the oil workers are unionized at Ecopetrol. 65% of the union went out on strike. The company offered bonuses, bribes and promotions to try to persuade workers not to strike.

During the strike, the families of strikers received letters and phone calls threatening death. Pressure was brought to bear on the family members of union workers, who in a few cases caved in and encouraged their loved ones to scab rather than risk job loss and the family's economic support. The union remained strong however, and in the end the government agreed to not privatize the company and to keep it 100% Colombian. With their courage, USO won an important victory for the Colombian people.

Unfortunately, after the strike, two USO members were framed for a crime they didn't commit, under the new 'terrorism' laws. One member is charged with planting a bomb and running from the scene of the crime, even though he had a broken leg at the time. The jail they are held in is extremely overcrowded. In whispers they told the CAN delegation that paramilitaries inside the jail are trying to intimidate the union activists and get special privileges from the jail guards.

These tactics have not broken the Colombian spirit. In July, several months after the strike, there was still a considerable amount of political graffiti throughout the entire country calling for nationalized oil. Graffiti expressed solidarity with the union using slogans like, “The battle for USO is the battle for Colombia!”

The Battle against Killer Coke

In Barrancabermeja the delegation met with the vice-president of the beverage workers union (SINALTRAINAL), William Mendoza. He gave the delegation context for the struggle at Coca-Cola plants throughout Colombia: “Since 1990 the Coca-Cola company has had the goal of union-free plants in Colombia. Twelve years ago 96% of the Coke workforce was unionized. 96% of the jobs with Coke were full-time permanent positions. Now only 4% of the jobs with Coke are permanent full-time jobs. The rest are now temporary jobs. In 1993, 1808 workers were members of SINALTRAINAL, but now only 300 workers are with the union. The company’s campaign of firing, pressuring and threatening union members and leaders has severely hurt the union. Nine compañeros have been assassinated, 45 displaced and 75 threatened.”

Recently Coca-Cola has applied to the Colombian government to dismiss 63 workers, including 31 leaders of the union. This is in violation of their contract. These union workers should be relocated to other positions or transferred to other plants. The government has approved this attack and each of Coke's massive layoffs. These firings are more evidence that Coca-Cola, with its economic and political power, is plotting with the Alvaro Uribe administration to eliminate the union.

Mendoza continued, “Another tactic Coke is taking is to close the plants. They have closed twelve in total. The union believes the plants will be reopened but without a union. However the union offers a better way of life for the workers.” He explained, “At Coca-Cola's plants a union worker will earn $260 per month and work an 8-hour day, whereas a non-union worker will earn $110 per month, the legal minimum, and work 14 to 16 hours per day. Coca-Cola is trying to eliminate the contract by closing all the plants where union members work. However, Coke isn't just trying to destroy the union through plant closings. Several union members in Barrancabermeja, including the vice president, reported that their families had been threatened and that paramilitaries had tried to abduct their children.”

SINALTRAINAL members in Barrancabermeja stated that the company and the paramilitaries were working together to destroy the union. They gave the delegation several examples and personal testimony of cases when known paramilitaries were allowed into the plant to meet with Coca-Cola executives, even after the workers reported these in-plant meetings to Coca-Cola in Bogota. They even gave the example of Coca-Cola donating free soda pop to paramilitaries so they are refreshed while manning the check points that intimidate and terrorize people in the Barrancabermeja area.

William Mendoza, in an email communication to the CAN, said, “If we lose the fight against Coca-Cola, we will first lose our union, next our jobs and then our lives.” The truth of that statement may be imminent. Mendoza also said that if the firings take place and the union is broken, “It makes things very complicated for me – in terms of my security. This decision removes any political cost to the paramilitaries who would assassinate me.”

Since 2002, the Colombia Action Network has been organizing in solidarity with SINALTRAINAL. Last summer the CAN joined the international campaign for a boycott of all Coca-Cola products for their union-busting tactics including the support of right-wing paramilitary death squads. Mendoza informed the delegation that the movement in the U.S. has helped. He said, “We've felt international solidarity and pressure has decreased the threats to us. The company has had to give some means of security to us because of the international pressure. It’s because of this international pressure that we can continue our struggle.”

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