When I first met union leader Luis Adolfo Cardona in Chicago five years ago, I was stunned to hear his story, told in a nonchalant voice, of fleeing would-be kidnappers and barely escaping assassination attempts in his home country. Thanks to international labor ties, Cardona and his family made it to the U.S. and gained asylum. But his Hollywood-movie-worthy tale is hardly unusual. A staggering 3,000 to 4,000 trade unionists and labor activists have been murdered in Colombia in the past two decades.
Cardona’s former employer, a Coca-Cola bottling plant, has been one of the most notorious sites of violence. That story is now well-known, thanks in part to the creative international Killer Coke campaign and a lawsuit filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Yet little has changed for trade unionists and labor activists in Colombia.
There have been 17 murders in 2009, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. A March 2009 report by US LEAP notes that 49 Colombian unionists were killed in 2008, up from 39 in 2007. Between 2003 and 2007, Colombia accounted for more than half the murders of unionists worldwide, with 365 murders in Colombia and 657 globally.
The Escuela Nacional Sindical notes that since 2003, when President Alvaro Uribe promised a demobilization of paramilitary forces, there has been a significant change in the nature of anti-union violence, described as: bq” a decrease in homicides, the accelerated increase in detentions, the increase in violations of the human rights of women unionists, the powerful restrictions to union freedoms, a significant increase in death threats, the increase in crimes committed by State actors, and the use of a variety of strategies to invisibilize the magnitude of the violence.”
Meanwhile a new report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) takes a broad overview of the situation.
In addition to the blatant violence and intimidation from employers and paramilitaries, the COHA report identifies workplace dynamics which author Tara Patel thinks inhibit effective unionizing. She is critical of worker or union leadership for having “authoritative attitudes” that create “a highly divided work environment” — essentially alienating fellow workers.
Patel told me: “Because labor can be acquired for such low wages, many Colombian workers are not actually qualified for the positions they obtain, which is why I don’t really believe that management and upper-level employees take laborers seriously (and vice versa to some extent). Thus, these ‘authoritative’ attitudes develop and workers are exploited, creating the divided work environment.”
In many cases, as at the bottling plant, violence against unionists is apparently perpetrated on behalf of employers in the interest of quashing worker organizing. In other cases, like for oil workers with Occidental Petroleum, employees become targets or collateral damage in attacks by both rightwing paramilitary and leftist guerrillas.
The Colombian Commission of Jurists estimates that 80 percent of attacks on unionists are the work of right-wing death squads, and 15 percent are tied to left-wing forces.
The COHA report notes that at Occidental Petroleum, workers have been attacked, kidnapped and murdered by paramilitary groups; and endangered by bombs and other acts of sabotage by left-wing guerrillas including the ELN.
”Despite this, Occidental has made it clear to their employees that the company will not protect them with increased security or liberate them by paying ransom in the event that workers are kidnapped. The social irresponsibility displayed by Occidental Petroleum goes beyond simply ignoring workers’ pleas for increased safety on the job site. The energy company specifically employs laborers from distant cities to work in areas that are particularly heavy with paramilitary action, assuming that they are less likely to be informed about the dangers.”
The bilateral free trade deal with Colombia that President Bush pushed so hard for is now sidelined; and President Obama and Democratic legislators have made strong statements in favor of human and labor rights provisions in any such deal. Even without a free trade agreement, the US has a huge corporate presence in Colombia , with $10 billion invested in 2008. Hence human rights groups are still pushing the U.S. government and corporations to demand the Colombian government and employers safeguard Colombians’ right to labor organizing and simply working free from violence.
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.