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Date: Wed, 5 Aug 98 18:04:39 CDT
From: Colombian Labor Monitor <xx738@prairienet.org>
Subject: LABOR NOTES: Colombia's Dirty War on Labor
Article: 40511
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.4486.19980806181547@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Colombia's Dirty War on Labor

By Dennis Grammenos, Labor Notes, Colombian Labor Monitor, August 1998

The neo-liberal agenda is being imposed on Colombian workers through the union-busting overhauling of the country's labor code and the unrelenting terror of death-squads. The anti-union onslaught has taken its toll on Colombia's labor movement. Less than 6 percent of the workforce is still unionized. In the private sector the figure is just over 4 percent, whereas in the public sector teachers alone account for three quarters of the unionized workers.

In Colombia, the dire situation facing organized labor is justified by reference to that country's intensive counter-insurgency war. Abroad, especially in the United States, it is explained away by invoking the mirage of the so-called "war on drugs."

An insidious defamation campaign has sought to link organized labor to Colombia's left-wing guerrilla movements. As a result, unions are a major target of right-wing death-squads that have been operating, over the past couple of decades, with the acquiescence --and, often, sponsorship-- of the security forces and multinational corporations like British Petroleum, Nestle and Coca-Cola.

In this dirty war against labor, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Colombia's largest and most progressive labor confederation, has seen over 2,300 of its leaders and activists assassinated since it was founded in 1986. In keeping with the impunity that characterizes the terrorist campaign against progressive forces in that country, only one suspect was ever charged by the Colombian state for any of those assassinations.

In conjunction with the gruesome terror of the death-squads, unionists have been subjected to incessant prosecution by the Colombian state. The main weapon has been the criminalization of social protest, whereby the law is manipulated to make illegal the normal functions of unions and their memberships. In particular, in 1988 the government adopted Decree No. 180, which effectively brands unionists as "terrorists" in the eyes of the law. The decree reads: "Whoever provokes or maintains the population or a sector of the same in a state of unrest or terror, by means of acts that place at risk the life, the physical integrity or the liberty of persons or the edifices of the communication media, transport, processing or transportation of fluids and fuel plants, using means capable of creating hardship will face up to 20 years in prison." In effect, this decree criminalizes job actions in the telecommunications, transportation or energy sectors, allowing the government to charge Telecom workers as "terrorists" for holding a strike!

As one can imagine, this state of affairs has served to break the knee-caps of the labor movement. During June, telecommunications workers staged a 10-day strike to protest plans to privatize ColombiaUs Telecom and to demand that the company respect the agreements on pensions that had been negotiated by the three unions (ATT, ASITEL and SITELECOM). The government declared the strike "illegal", bringing considerable pressure on the unions to accept an agreement that would end the strike and diffuse the very tense situation that had developed in light of the refusal of Telecom president Jose Blackburn Cortez to negotiate in good faith.

By declaring the strike "illegal", the Colombian government cleared the way to invoke Decree No. 180 under which union leaders and organizers can be arrested on charges of "terrorism". In 1992, the government declared a Telecom workers' strike illegal, deeming it an act of "terrorism". Thirteen union leaders were arrested and tried. They were arbitrarily held for one year before the trumped-up charges were dropped.

Colombian brothers and sisters are calling for the help of progressive unionists in the United States and elsewhere. They need us to publicize their frightful plight. They need us to provide refugee support to unionists who have to flee Colombia in the face of the death-squads. They need us to convince U.S. legislators to re-evaluate the links between the U.S. and Colombian governments. They need us to pressure U.S.-based multi-nationals to clean-up their murderous records in Colombia. What they need most of all right now is our visible support and encouragement.

For more information on how you and your union can help, please contact the Colombian Labor Monitor, P.O. Box 66, Urbana, IL 61801-0066. Our Email address is clm@prairienet.org. A webpage is under construction at http://www.prairienet.org/clm