04/30/2008 09:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Labor Movement's Principled Position on Colombia FTA

Lately, in numerous news sources, including the New York Times, Miami Herald, and New York Post, the U.S. labor movement has been accused of "lying" about the violence confronting unionists in Colombia.

Really, while the articles in these papers claim the union movement is telling untruths, the heart of their argument is that labor is overstating the problem. Thus, their argument goes, "only" 39 unionists were killed last year in Colombia, a much better figure than previous years.

The commentators in these articles claim that the union movement, to make its case about how bad the labor situation in Colombia is, relies upon "outdated" statistics, such as numbers from prior years which, when totaled, show that over 2,300 unionists have been killed since 1991.
As an initial matter, the U.S. labor movement believes, not incredibly, that 39 unionists killed in a year is way too many. It remains the worst level of anti-union violence in the world.

Commentators who use "only" and "merely" to describe 39 murders, we believe, do not value the sanctity of human life.

In addition, they ignore the important fact that, even while union killings declined in 2007, the Colombian military's share of such killings actually rose. Thus, while only two unionists were killed by the military in 2006, the Colombian military was responsible for at least five union killings in 2007.

This is consistent with the overall increase in the military's share of extra-judicial killings, with the military responsible for 955 such killings in the first five years of President Alvaro Uribe's term -- a whopping 65% increase over the prior five year period.

Moreover, murder is not the only form of violence used by those who wish to intimidate and silence the labor movement. In 2007, unionists were exposed in ever increasing numbers to other forms of violence.

For example, in 2007, 101 unionists were removed by force from their homes and towns -- an astronomical increase from the seven violently removed in 2006. Indeed, when one looks at the overall violent acts against unionists (including killings, forced displacement, torture, threats, detentions and kidnappings), there was an increase in such violations from 382 in 2006 to 418 in 2007.

Again, these other forms of violence, which are equally damaging to the Colombian labor movement, are simply ignored by commentators promoting the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.

In addition, by focusing on murders that occurred in 2007, it is these commentators who are using "outdated" statistics. That is because none of these op-eds condemning the union movement as a bunch of "liars" mention the fact that at least 23 unionists have been killed in Colombia so far in the first four months of this year.

I say "at least," because unionists are being killed so quickly this year that it is hard to keep track of the numbers. If this rate of killings continues -- and I certainly pray it does not -- the level of union murders will be in keeping with that in prior years (around 70) which apparently has been sufficient to shock the consciences of even those commentators who now condemn us.

In addition, the killings of unionists, as of late, are of an increasingly more grizzly quality, with the victims showing signs of torture. As the president of the CUT (the Central Union of Workers) explains, the unionists this year "have been attacked with a knife, [and] showed signs of torture," further "generating terror" among union workers who now must fear the process of death even more than the death itself.

A recent victim, Jesus Caballero Ariza, was an instructor of human rights for his teacher's union. He disappeared on April 16, 2008 and was found two days later in a mass grave, with signs of torture, machete wounds, and a shot in the head. Of all the unionists killed so far this year, half of them, like Caballero, were teachers.

The other thing Caballero had in common with a number of unionists killed so far this year was that he was an organizer of the March 6, 2008 demonstration against state and paramilitary violence in Colombia -- a demonstration organized and sponsored by peaceful human rights and labor groups, including my union, the United Steelworkers (USW).

Yet, the organizers and participants of this demonstration were recklessly put in harm's way by the administration of President Alvaro Uribe whose own spokesman publicly announced before the demonstration that neither he nor Uribe would participate in the demonstration because, as he untruthfully and dangerously claimed, the march was being "convened by the FARC" guerillas -- a clear signal to the paramilitaries that those associated with demonstration were fair targets of violence.

As a result of this slanderous claim, at least five unionists, and two other human rights advocates, have been killed by the paramilitaries who also threatened 28 individuals with death for participating in this event.

This type of stigmatization of union leaders, which the Uribe administration habitually used against members of the labor movement, shows a reckless disregard for union members' lives in Colombia.

In the end, as a result of the continued anti-union violence in Colombia at rates unprecedented in the world, and as a result of a relentless legal assault by the Uribe administration against trade union rights, Colombia now the smallest percentage of workers with collective bargaining rights in the Western Hemisphere -- less than 1%. And, this figure is 1/4 of what it was just 10 years ago.

The U.S. labor movement is, in fact, telling the truth about the dire labor situation in Colombia, and it is opposing the Colombia FTA based upon its principled solidarity with its union brothers and sisters who continue to face the threat of anti-union violence, in all of its forms, every day.