On May 23, Adolfo Devia, vice president of the Cali Colombia Municipal Workers Union, was walking on the street when a gunman opened fire. Devia wasn’t hit. But his 24-year-old brother, Johathan, was killed from one shot to the head. Two other people, including a 4-year-old girl, were wounded.
It might be called “business as usual” in Colombia, which the International Labor Rights Forum calls “the most dangerous country in the world for unionists.”
According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), nearly 3,000 trade unionists have been murdered since the launching of a right-wing campaign to get rid of labor organizations in that country in 1986.
In the days before the attack on Devia, two other leaders of the municipal workers union received death threats from a far-right wing militia calling itself “The Black Eagles.”
Most of the attacks and killings of unionists in Colombia are attributed to right wing paramilitary groups such as the Black Eagles and the United Self Defense Forces, which labels unionists as “subversives” to justify their work. In addition to assassinations, these groups engage in widespread intimidation, threats, beatings, abductions, firings and blacklistings.
Some of these paramilitary groups have been officially designated as “terrorist organizations” by the U.S. government. Yet they seem to operate with impunity. There are documented ties between these “terrorists” and high- level officials in the Colombian government. The ITUC says that 96 percent of the cases of unionist assassinations were unpunished and many not even investigated. As of last month, not a single person has been convicted of ordering or paying for these attacks on unionists.
Devia’s case is somewhat unusual in that respect. He was walking with an armed body guard when attacked and the guard was able to wound one of the would-be assassins. The attacker was arrested and reportedly “questioned by authorities.”
The repression of organized labor in Colombia was a key argument against approval of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) last year, with unions and human rights groups demanding that any treaty be scrapped at least until the Colombian government guarantees labor rights.
Perhaps because of the pressure on lawmakers to force Colombia to clean up its act, the number of murdered trade unionists in that country dropped to “only” 29 last year—a “welcome reduction” according to the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project. But, they note, now with CFTA on the books, and with no real mechanism for enforcing labor rights under the treaty, murders of unionists in 2012 are back on pace with previous years.
In the face of all of this repression, only 1.2 percent of the workers in Colombia are covered by collective bargaining agreements. Employers, supported by the paramilitaries, have gutted unions through an aggressive campaign to contract out work covered by union bargaining agreements.
Coca-Cola, for example, has a practice of replacing unionized workers with contractors, sub-contractors, “associated work agreements” and people from temp agencies. The contracted employees are prohibited from forming or joining a union. Many Coca-Cola contract workers are actually former direct employees who were laid off from unionized jobs.
Coca-Cola and other multinational corporations, including household names like Chiquita, Dole, Nestle, Occidental Petroleum and Drummond, have been charged with hiring right wing paramilitary groups to commit acts of violence and intimidation against union activists.
Coca-Cola, of course, vehemently denies all charges and has mercilessly attacked groups like “Killer Coke,” which focuses attention on that company’s human rights violations around the world and especially on their attacks on unions in Colombia. More on the organization is available at www.killercoke.org.
Coke’s assault on workers’ rights in Latin America is the subject of a recent documentary entitled “The Coca-Cola Case,” which is available at http://www.thecoca-colacase.org/.
Dole Flower Workers
Dole, as another example, has an extensive cut flower operation in Colombia and has been engaged in a long, brutal campaign to prevent unionization of its workforce. Flower workers, most of whom are women, make as little as $8 a day, which is the Colombian minimum wage. The work is hard and dangerous.
But the cut flower workers have had some success, standing up in the face of threats and intimidation, to form the Sintrasplendor union at a number of Dole farms. In 2008, members of the new union ratified their first contract with improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions. Dole continues to resist, however, and formed a “yellow” or company union to undermine the independent union. Police and armed forces are also routinely deployed at union functions, as a further reminder of what happens to workers who get out of line.
Locally, the Madison chapter of the Colombia Support Network is working to bring the abuse of workers’ rights in Colombia to the attention of unions and the public. In February the group sponsored a fact-finding tour of Colombia, which included meetings with a number of trade union leaders across the country.
For more information about a summer film series, upcoming tours, and how you might become involved in supporting workers’ and human rights in Colombia, http://colombiasupport.net/.