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Union busting and kalashnikovs

By Luc Demaret, ICFTU OnLine..., 111/990608/LD, 6 June 1998

Brussels. June 8 1999 (ICFTU Info): San Carlos, Colombia, March 24 1998: the lifeless body of Rosmira Gallego, a teacher in the small town of El Jordan is found. Rosmira was an activist in the Antioquia province teachers’ union, and an opponent of the Colombian government’s privatisation programme. Before her death, Rosmira and 40 of her colleagues had received death threats by a paramilitary group.

Ocotequilla, Mexico, September 22: Bernardo Ramirez Rodriguez, teacher, was on the Copanatoyac to Ocotequilla bus in Mexico’s Montanya region. His three-year-old son was on his knees. When the bus was stopped by 15 armed men, Bernardino barely had time to wrap his arms tightly around him and protect him with his body. He was killed at point blank range. His son survived. Bernardino was an active member of the Guerrero State teachers’ union. His activities had already attracted threats. Several of his colleagues have been persecuted and tortured, while others are reported missing.

April 1998, La Paz, Bolivia: Enrique Candia, a teacher, was taking part in anti-government protests organised by the Bolivian Workers’ Centre to demand decent salaries for teachers. Claiming the strike was illegal, the police intervened, forcibly. Enrique fell down, as a bullet hit him in the leg. He was taken to hospital, where the leg had to be amputated.

In Argentina, in the Neuquen province, Oscar Di Diego, assistant general secretary of the local teachers’ union, continued his fight against the new law on education policy which he considered totally unjust. The death threats he received by telephone, by anonymous letter, in his mail box or on his car windscreen, had done nothing to lessen his determination....

These examples, taken from the ICFTU’s Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights, give just a brief glimpse of the trade union situation in Latin America, which remains the most dangerous region in the world for trade unionists. More than one hundred were killed there in 1998. Union busting, the favourite sport of many companies in the United States, is carried out in its southern neighbours with kalashnikovs and M-16s.

With a total of 90 trade unionists killed in 1998, Colombia still holds an unenviable world record. The knowledge that this is fewer than the previous year is poor consolation, and not necessarily proof of a trend. Any increase in political or social tension seems to bring with it an increase in violence. The death squads stepped up their activities, for example, in the run-up to the June 1998 elections, indicates the ICFTU survey, listing the murders of 11 people, and the massacre of another 25 in the town of Barrancabermeja by a paramilitary group calling itself AUSAC, in mid-May. The most serious violations of trade union rights are often linked to collective bargaining, company closures or mass dismissals. Concentrated in the oil-drilling region of the country, anti-union repression in Colombia has hit particularly hard at teachers, rural workers and miners. And while the police are quick to break up peaceful protest movements, they still drag their feet when it comes to finding the assassins. Eight trade unionists were killed during a general strike in October 1998, including Jorge Ortega, vice-president of the national trade union centre, the CUT.

In Brazil, there were more victims in the dispute between the landless peasants and the big landowners in 1998. In March 1998, reports the ICFTU, Onalicio Araujo Barros and Valentin Serra, two leaders of the landless peasants’ movement, the MST, were killed while escorting peasants evicted from the land they occupied by the local farmers.

While the European Union and the United States wage war within the World Trade Organisation over banana production, the ICFTU report looks at what is happening to the banana workers themselves, on the plantations of Central America. In Costa Rica, the plantations have become the stronghold of solidarism, the pro-employer associations. Plantation workers who attempt to form unions risk dismissal, reports the ICFTU survey, noting that unions have to operate in virtual secrecy. Since Hurricane Mitch, there has been an influx of labour, with the banana multinationals taking advantage of the arrival en masse of illegal migrants from the affected countries. In Guatemala, plantation workers were promptly dismissed when they formed a trade union. Their employers orchestrated intimidation campaigns, threatening to close down the plantations and demand that the reinstated workers sign documents pledging not to join the unions. After a march involving more than 5,000 plantation workers in Guatemala, the government agreed to set up a tripartite commission. But the government’s real intentions are questionable. On May 12, two trade union representatives were arrested as they left a meeting of the tripartite commission. On the same day in Honduras, one of the local plantation workers’ leaders was killed. Shortly before his death he had denounced the widespread use of toxic pesticides by the plantation planters.

The ICFTU survey notes there was no real progress in Central America’s export processing zones, where foreign (South Korea, Taiwan) capital companies seem to ignore fundamental workers’ rights completely. Arrests in Paraguay and violent repression in Peru complete the trade union scene in Latin America, a sorry situation that governments seem prepared to accept. The violent repression of a trade union situation in Chile, where the dock workers of Valparaiso found themselves face to face with police armed with M-16s, is reminiscent of the horrors the unions thought belonged to the past. The ICFTU survey is sounding a warning note. Not only in Chile but in Ecuador too, where it reports on signs of paramilitary activity and the emergence of violence against trade unionists. Ecuadorian trade unionists fear the death squads may be taking a hold. The boast of a Colombian paramilitary member that he has trained some 30 men in Ecuador has done nothing to reassure them.