03/04/2013 06:43 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Labor Violence in Colombia

We've all seen those movies where Mr. Big (influential politician, wealthy CEO, crime boss, etc.) is riding in the backseat of a limo when two guys on a motorbike -- the driver and a shooter -- suddenly pull up beside the car, fire an automatic weapon, kill the passenger, and then go tear-assing off through traffic, making their clean getaway.

Arguably, if those movie scenes were set in Colombia, the passenger wouldn't be a politician or CEO or celebrity gangster. Instead, he would be a labor union activist. That's how feared and despised union officials are south of the border. Not that labor unions in the U.S. are any more respected or popular than they are in South America. For cultural and political reasons, they're just treated differently.

The history of the U.S. labor movement is not without violence. Indeed, there were hundreds of episodes where club-carrying goon squads on the company's payroll cracked the skulls of picketers and strike captains, causing the streets to run red with blood. And where were the police while these thugs were whaling on the picketers? In those days, they were spectators, rooting for the company. But by and large, American labor violence has tended to be more spontaneous than systematic.

The difference between us and Colombia is largely one of arrogance. In the U.S., management behaves more subtly, more humbly, coming at the union obliquely. Management neutralizes labor officials by flattering them, wining and dining them, inviting them to seminars, then nailing the coffin shut by co-opting them, offering them jobs in the HR department. In Colombia they don't bother with these rituals. They simply assassinate them.

On Jan. 28, a 30-year-old union organizer and sugar cane cutter named Juan Carlos Perez was murdered by two gunmen who shot him down in front of several co-workers. They chased him from his home before cornering him. According to witnesses, after murdering Perez in cold blood, the assassins casually drove away on their motorbikes, as if they had just performed a civic duty.

And a couple weeks ago, on Feb. 23, Luis Morantes, head of the Colombia Workers Confederation, barely escaped assassination in the city of Cali, when men on motorbikes sprayed his vehicle with automatic gun fire. Morantes survived because he was riding in an armor-plated car. That's a mind-blower. We can't imagine an American union official -- someone like Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO -- being required to use an armored car.

Over the last few decades -- going back to the 1970s -- literally hundreds of union activists have been killed in Colombia. The only other country that even comes close to Colombia in the murder of union people is Bangladesh, and they lag far behind. And make no mistake: These murders are done purely for economic reasons. Colombian businesses don't want anyone rocking the boat, and are willing to kill to make sure that doesn't happen.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is somewhat complicit in this. Although we have the economic and political clout to do something, the signal Washington continues to send Colombia is crystal clear: We care about one thing and one thing only -- i.e., curtailing the drug trade. The Colombians aren't stupid. They know what our priorities are. After all, fighting drugs is why we've poured billions of dollars into their country.

Because Colombia has convinced the U.S. that the trio of Government-Military-Business represents the only hope of defeating the cartels, we ignore the systematic violence being directed against unions. Not that the U.S. government has ever had any great affection for labor, but this is more than a management versus labor dispute. This is a life-and-death scenario, and it's the working class that's being killed.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep.