Colombian President Uribe Confirms U.S. Unions' Fears

Last week, the AFL-CIO sent a delegation of trade unionists, including representatives of the United Steelworkers on a fact-finding mission to Colombia, South America -- the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Approximately 2,300 unionists have been killed in Colombia since 1991; 470 since the current president, Alvaro Uribe, took office in 2002. Five have been killed already this year.

I represented the USW on this delegation as it asked numerous unionists, Colombian congressional representatives, the ILO, the Colombian Constitutional Court, Attorney General Mario Iguaran, and President Uribe about the continued violence against trade unionists in that country.

Our meeting with President Uribe took a chilling turn when I raised our collective concern about the pervasive anti-union culture in the military, companies and even the government in Colombia -- a culture which labels those workers attempting to organize and exercise their union rights as "guerillas" or "terrorists." In a country where the Colombian military, along with right-wing paramilitaries aligned with the military, are at war with the guerillas, such labels target those workers for assassination.

As an example of anti-union stigmatization, I related to President Uribe a conversation I had with a colonel of the Colombian Army's 18th Brigade shortly after this Brigade shot and killed three trade union leaders near Saravena in August of 2004. Colonel Medina of the 18th Brigade told me at that time that he knew he was required as an army officer to protect trade unionists as he would all citizens. However, he claimed that many unionists were in fact guerrillas -- a claim which is untrue but which makes unionists fair game for attacks by the military.

In response, President Uribe said to me that he meets with unionists every month and that many of them have good hearts. Like the colonel, however, he followed up this statement with a pregnant "but." To wit, he said that it was his experience as a student (presumably decades ago) that a tactic of the guerrillas was to infiltrate the union movement, the student movement and the press.

Then, Uribe went on to claim that the three unionists killed near Saravena in 2004 were in fact guerillas linked to the guerilla group ELN. I disagreed with the President, pointing out that his own attorney general had concluded, after investigation, that this claim was not true, and that the 18th Brigade had actually planted weapons on the unionists after the fact to make it look like they were insurgents killed in a gun battle. In response, Uribe said that he had gone to Saravena personally and that members of the community had assured him that the three killed were in fact members of the ELN.

So, based on hearsay, without any proof, and in defiance of his own attorney general's conclusions, the president clings to the contention that these individuals were "terrorists."

Sadly, this was not a slip of the tongue by Uribe. Indeed, he has made such dangerous statements before. Consider what he told Colombia's leading newspaper El Tiempo. In discussing two trade unionists killed last year, he said that they were killed because one of the men was a "terrorist." Again, there was never any proof for this assertion.

And, indeed, human rights groups, and the UN High Commission for Human Rights as well, have debunked any theory of union-guerilla collaboration, and are unanimous in the conclusion that unionists in Colombia are being killed, not because they have any illegal affiliations, but precisely because they are unionists.

In the end, Uribe's comments revealed why the murders of unionists continue and why fewer than 3 percent of the hundreds of cases of trade union killings have ever been successfully prosecuted - because of the stigmatization of unionists by the highest ranks of the Colombian government, including the President himself.

While in Colombia, the AFL-CIO delegation also met with representatives of many unions and union delegations. The unionists we met with, as well the numerous Congressional representatives, were unanimous in their view that unions in Colombia are disappearing -- both as a result of overt anti-union violence as well as the legal assault by President Uribe which has left less than 1 perfect of the workforce with the legal right to collectively bargain.

This is the country with which the Bush administration is insisting the U.S. sign a Free Trade Agreement. He insists that Congress approve the deal, claiming that the numbers of unionists killed in recent years is down. This ignores the fact that the numbers are still large -- certainly enough to continue to qualify Colombia as the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. This also ignores the fact that, after years of anti-union violence and anti-union legislation, there are simply fewer unionists remaining to kill.

The U.S. Congress must continue to resist rewarding the Uribe government with a Free Trade Agreement. The lives of unionists in Colombia literally depend on it.