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Friday, October 24 2014 @ 10:20 AM CDT

The Columbian Connection: US Fuels A Dirty War Against Unions

News ArchiveSubmitted by Drew:

In mid-March, Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Orcasita were riding from their jobs at the Loma coal mine in northern Colombia. Locarno and Orcasita were president and vice president of the union at the mine, a local of Sintramienergetica, one of Colombia's two coal miners' unions. As the company bus neared Valledupar, 30 miles from the mine, it was stopped by 15 gunmen, some in military uniforms.

They began checking the identification of the workers, and when they found the two union leaders, they were pulled off the bus. Locarno was hit in the head with a rifle butt. One of the gunmen then shot him in the face, as his fellow workers on the bus watched in horror. Orcasita was taken off into the woods at the side of the road. There he was tortured. When his body was found later, his fingernails had been torn off.

Leading a union often means losing a job, even blacklisting. In many countries, it can bring imprisonment by governments who view unions as a threat to the social and economic elite. But the most dangerous country by far is Colombia, where labor activism is often punished with death. By mid-May, 44 Colombian trade union leaders already had been murdered this year. Last year, assassinations cost the lives of 129 others. According to Hector Fajardo, general secretary of the United Confederation of Workers (CUT), the country's largest union federation, 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated since 1986. Out of every five trade unionists killed in the world, three are Colombian.

U.S. energy, trade and military policies are contributing to the devastation of the country's labor movement. Bush administration energy policies encourage the use of coal in U.S. power plants, and millions of tons are now mined for export by U.S. corporations in the midst of Colombia's civil war. Free market economic reforms, pushed by the International Monetary Fund, are provoking a wave of resistance by Colombian labor, which is being met by violent repression. And U.S. military aid provided by Plan Colombia supports activities by right-wing paramilitary groups, who in turn target trade union leaders.

The Loma mine is owned by Drummond Co., a multi-national corporation based in Birmingham, Alabama. Drummond opened the mine in 1994, and it is now Colombia's second largest. At first, according to Ken Zinn of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), Drummond promised its U.S. workers that it wouldn't import Colombian coal to compete with its U.S. operations. But since 1994, Drummond has closed five mines in Alabama, laying off 1,700 members of the United Mine Workers. Its one remaining U.S. mine employs about 500 miners.

Alabama used to export coal--13 million tons in 1996, mostly from Drummond mines. Last year's exports totaled only 3 million tons. But 5 million tons of Colombian coal crossed the Alabama State Docks in Mobile last year. It was bound for plants operated by the Alabama Power Co., a division of the Southern Co., which also operates generating facilities in Florida and Mississippi. The plants were formerly fueled by Drummond's U.S. mines. Another half million tons went to the Alabama Electrical Cooperative. At the Loma mine, production rose 4 million tons in 2000, to a total of 11.8 million, after the company built a huge drag line. The company expects to sell 15 million tons next year, and 25 million tons by 2006. For Drummond the transfer has resulted in substantial savings on labor costs. A union miner in Alabama earns $18 an hour, or $3,060 a month, plus benefits.

At the Loma mine, wages range from about $500 to $1,000 a month. Mineworkers Vice President Jerry Jones says Drummond transferred operations to Colombia "knowing that country's hostile political climate and egregious human rights violations."

Colombia is the world's fourth-largest coal exporter-- it shipped 30 million tons of coal in 2000, worth $794 million. Coal is the country's third-largest source of export earnings. Last year the government's mines in central Colombia were privatized as part of economic reforms mandated by the IMF, and sold to a consortium of South African, Swiss and British investors for $384 million. The formerly state-owned Cerrejon Norte mine, the largest export mine in the world, is now operated as a joint venture between the government and Exxon Mobil Corp. Conditions for Colombian miners are some of the world's most dangerous. An April 27 blast at the Cana Brava mine in Santander province killed 15 miners. In October 1997, another explosion buried 16 coal miners alive in El Diviso mine, near Cucuta.

Drummond clearly sees an interest in supporting a Bush administration policy that encourages the increased use of coal in electrical generation. And it sees U.S. military intervention in Colombia in its interest as well. "We are in support of the Colombian Plan and the U.S. efforts in the drug war," Mike Tracy, a Drummond spokesman, told journalist Stephen Jackson, writing in the Latin American Post.

That support translated into a $50,000 donation by Drummond to the Republican National Committee last July; $25,000 to the National Republican Congressional Campaign; and $20,000 to the National Republican Senate Campaign last October. Overall, the coal industry dumped $3.8 million into the 2000 elections, and gave 88 percent of it to Republicans. In turn, the Bush campaign pursued a "cars and coal" strategy to win mining states, among others, based on an industry-friendly perspective. (And after the election, the administration dropped a campaign pledge that it would back carbon-dioxide emissions reductions from coal-fired power stations. That policy change has a big impact on the Alabama plants burning Colombian coal.)

On November 3, Bush told a crowd in West Virginia, where he would beat Al Gore four days later, that "coal is going to energize America." He didn't promise, however, that it would be mined in the United States.

Colombia's rightist paramilitary army, the United Self-Defense Group (AUC), was blamed for the murders of Locarno and Orcasita by the local police commander. According to Ken Zinn of the ICEM, the AUC had issued a number of death threats against the leaders of the union at the Loma mine, accusing them of being in league with the country's main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). "In the conflict a lot of assumptions are made quickly,'' explains Rafael Albuquerque, who represents the International Labor Organization in Colombia. "One of those assumptions is that many union leaders support the guerrillas."

The region has been the scene of intense conflict between the FARC and the AUC. The guerrillas allegedly levy a 10 percent tax on coal moving by rail out of the mine, which Drummond has refused to pay, and the 215-mile rail line to Puerto Drummond on the coast was bombed five times in the last year. In response, company President Gary Drummond visited Colombian President Andres Pastrana last year to demand increased protection.

Locarno and Orcasita themselves had repeatedly pleaded with the company for protection. In a meeting just a week before the assassinations, the union demanded that Drummond provide security for its workers, and that the company abide by a previous agreement allowing them to sleep overnight at the mine. The company ignored the agreement and refused to allow the men to stay. Protesting the deaths of their leaders, 1,200 miners at Loma briefly stopped working.

The mining union leaders have not been the only targets of the AUC. On March 22, just days after the murders in Valledupar, two leaders of the Colombian electrical workers union, Andres Granados and Jaime Sanchez, were gunned down. In mid-March, Eugenio Sanchez Diaz, a union activist in the oil town of Barrancabermeja, was dragged from his home and shot in the street. On the last day of March, Jaime Alberto Duque Castro, leader of the El Cairo Cement Workers Union, was kidnapped by armed gunmen. Another union leader, Ricardo Orozco, vice president of the Colombian Hospital Workers Union, had his name on a list of 50 union leaders in Barranquilla, which was circulated by the paramilitary death squads. He was shot by a gunman in April, and his death was followed by two days of national labor protest.

Robin Kirk, who monitors human rights abuses in Colombia for Human Rights Watch, says that there are strong ties between the paramilitaries and the Colombian military. "The Colombian military and intelligence apparatus has been virulently anti-Communist since the '50s," she says, "and they look at trade unionists as subversives--as a very real and potential threat. Generally they see groups on the left as linked to the ideology that led to the formation of guerrilla groups."

Violence against trade unionists is part of a larger context of violence against community leaders and human rights activists. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, 6,000 Colombians were killed as the result of social and political violence in 2000. The CCJ attributes 80 percent of the killings to the paramilitaries, 15 percent to the guerrillas and 5 percent directly to the government. But Roberto Molino of the CCJ says that "in the case of the paramilitaries, you cannot underestimate the collaboration of government forces."

The Colombian government also views union activity as a threat because it challenges its basic economic policies. The Pastrana administration is under pressure from the IMF and World Bank to cut the public sector budget, causing mass terminations, along with cuts in education, health care and pensions. In January, finance minister Juan Manuel Santos announced measures that would close many state agencies, laying off 42,000 workers. The money would be used to pay the country's debt to foreign banks and lending institutions, making Colombia more attractive to foreign investors. In March, the General Confederation of Democratic Workers organized a 24-hour strike of 700,000 workers, including 300,000 teachers and education employees, protesting the layoffs. On June 7, tens of thousands of Colombian workers took to the streets in marches across the country opposing the IMF.

The Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE) struck on May 15 for 48 hours over Santos' proposal to cut the education budget by $340 million. FECODE President Gloria Ines Ramirez predicted that the cuts would deprive 500,000 Colombian children of an education, and 3 million people have already signed petitions opposing them. Heath care workers also joined the strike. "We will not allow the government to make budget cuts for two of the most important necessities for our poorest sector simply to pay interest on the foreign debt," Ines declared.

Being a teachers union activist in Colombia is as dangerous as being a coal mine leader. Since 1986, 418 educators have been murdered. In just one week in early May, Dario de Jesus Silva, a 22-year veteran teacher in Antioquia, and Juan Carlos Castro Zapata, another school worker in the same province, were assassinated. Both were activists in the teachers' union ADIDA. On May 14, Julio Alberto Otero, a university lecturer and union activist, was also killed.

The IMF mandate for privatization has been just as bitterly resisted. The union for workers at the government corporation EMCALI, which provides garbage, water and electricity to Cali city residents, has fought the company's sell-off. One of the union's activists, Carlos Eliecer Prado, was killed in May. "Colombian trade unionists have been targeted by dark forces moving inside the state," a union statement warned. "They seek to silence through assassination, eviction or terror those who are against privatization and those who defend human rights."

The wave of death and violence is made possible by growing U.S. aid to the Colombian armed forces. Under Plan Colombia, the United States has funneled more than $1 billion into the country, almost entirely in the form of military assistance. Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. The money funds a dirty war against all critics of the Colombian social and economic order, including unionists.

This spring, the United Steelworkers sent a formal delegation to Colombia in the wake of the murders of Locarno and Orcasita. The delegation met with leaders of the CUT. After the delegation made its report, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard warned the U.S. government, "We are strongly opposed to the amount of military aid being sent to the Colombian army when trade unionists and innocent people are being killed by the very military forces we are financing."

The Steelworkers' criticism follows a position taken by the AFL-CIO last year, which also called for ending military assistance. Labor's strong reaction to the Colombian murders stands in contrast to its relative silence during the Reagan administration-sponsored wars in Central America in the '80s. During that era, Cold War anti-communism led AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland to try to suppress widespread criticism of U.S. foreign policy in union ranks. Kirkland and other labor conservatives accused most Colombian unions of being too left-wing. In turn, the Colombians, like many Third World labor federations, accused the AFL-CIO of supporting only anti-communist unions that defended U.S. foreign policy.

Today, U.S. unions want relations with all sectors of Colombian labor, and use a single standard in calling for the defense of unions under attack. "Trade union rights are human rights, and our union will fight to protect them everywhere," Gerard says. "We demand that the Colombian government protect all trade unionists in their country and do everything in its power to bring these assassins to justice."

http://www.inthesetimes.com/web2517/bacon2517.html
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