Top labor leaders ended a trip to Colombia Feb. 13 by telling that country’s president, Alvaro Uribe, that American unions will not support the U.S. – Colombia Free Trade Agreement until the killing of union members by right-wing death squads there is put to a stop.
The American labor leaders found, during their two day trip to Colombia, that trade unionists operate in a climate of fear in that country where 38 of them were murdered in 2007 and eight more, almost one per week, have been murdered since Jan. 1, 2008. President Bush demanded in his recent State of the Union speech that Congress approve the trade agreement with Colombia.
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Emerita Linda Chavez Thompson, Communication Workers of America President Larry Cohen and United Steelworkers counsel Dan Kovalik met for two days with Colombian labor leaders, International Labor Organization representatives in Colombia and elected leaders including President Uribe.
They found the Colombian government has systematically undermined union members’ rights while exerting little efforts to address the murders of Colombian trade unionists.
One of the most recent of these murders was the killing of Yebrain Suarez, 32, a leader in Colombia’s corrections officers union. He was shot to death Jan. 28 in the doorway of his home as he returned from a day at work
Dan Kovalik told the Peoples Weekly World: “Even without the killings this trade agreement is a disaster for U.S. workers and for the people in Colombia. In America it will speed up the exporting of jobs and it will hurt Colombians because they will be flooded with cheap food sent in by powerful multinational corporations. This will destroy their main crop, rice, and impoverish and dislocate millions, exactly what happened with the so called free trade agreement in Mexico.
“Massive dislocation of people like that then contributes to huge numbers of people being forced to migrate out of their countries,” Kovalik indicated.
He took issue with claims by the Bush administration that it was time to pass the trade agreement because the number of murders of trade unionists is smaller now than in previous years when hundreds were killed each year.
“This is only because there are fewer left to kill,” Kovalik declared. “The death squads go after the unionists who operate among the one percent of the workers who have collective bargaining rights and that number is going down. The total unionized work force is four percent but only that one percent have collective bargaining rights.”
Kovalik was optimistic about labor’s fight to keep the trade agreement with Colombia from becoming law. He said the unions have commitments from the Democratic House leadership to keep the measure from coming up for a vote and that labor intends to hold them to that commitment. He said both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Democratic presidential candidates, oppose the measure and that John McCain, the Republican candidate supports the measure.
Chavez-Thompson said, “The meeting with President Uribe was important to send a strong message of solidarity with the Colombian unions. Our job here is to support them in their struggle to rebuild the union movement after decades of violence and the steady erosion of legal rights.”
The American labor leaders met with leaders of the major Colombian labor federations who told them they were opposed to the trade agreement because of both the attacks on trade unionists and the harmful effects the deal would have on Colombian workers.
The Colombian government has a consistent policy of union busting. Colombian courts have ordered the Uribe government to reinstate with back pay oil workers who struck recently. The government refuses to obey the court order.
CWA’s Cohen commented on the small percentage (one percent) of Colombian workers who have union contracts: “It is the lowest rate in the hemisphere, and among the worst in the world. They are killing the unions, not just the union leaders.”
After Colombia, the Philippines had the next highest rate of murdered trade unionists, with 33 murdered last year. There also were 201 death threats against trade unionists in 2007.
Kovalik, who had travelled to Colombia previously, said the lack of union rights in Colombia is one of a number of reasons that everyone should be concerned about the large amount of military aid that the United States regularly gives to that country.
The U.S. labor leaders participated in a vigil organized by the Colombian unions.
Chavez-Thompson, said at the event, “We are here to pay homage to the thousands of Colombian trade unionists who sacrificed their lives for what they believed in. And we are here to celebrate their lives, because they died to better the lives of their sisters and brothers, in Colombia and throughout the world.”