Crushing The Wings Of Labor: The Air Pilot's Strike And Colombia's Ongoing Labor Crisis

11/08/2017 11:12 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2017

In the five years leading up to the U.S. Congress’s passage of the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia in October 2011, Colombia’s deplorable labor rights situation was under scrutiny, with calls for change coming from all over the world. Thousands of trade unionists were murdered, amounting to the elimination of generations of labor activists and sending a message to Colombia’s workers that they better put up with it, shut up or be killed. Union offices were bombed, unionists equated with terrorism, intimidation, harassment and death threats a daily reality. Impunity for such crimes still remains at over 90 percent.

As Colombia’s outrageous labor record was scrutinized, pressure was placed on the country to decrease the abuses. Interested in getting its FTA with the U.S., Colombia agreed to a U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan that sought to decrease the killings, obtain justice for unionists killed, do away with sub-contracting, and strengthen the labor movement by protecting collective bargaining and the right to unionize. A Ministry of Labor was established, hundreds of labor inspectors hired and legislative and institutional changes made. Labor sectors such as ports, flowers, sugar, mining and oil palm thought to be worst effected were paid attention to for the first time. Workers who had never thought of organizing into unions felt emboldened for the first time to give it a shot. While affected economic interests, political elites and others fought tooth and nail to prevent these changes, an infrastructure was set up to at least make a dent into these abuses.

During the period leading up to the FTA, the situation facing Avianca workers was presented in Washington, DC as a model for doing away with subcontracting. As many of us feared, however, once the FTAs with Canada, the U.S. and other States passed, global interest in advancing labor rights waned and the eyes of the international community turned elsewhere. While there has been a decrease in the killing of trade unionists, Colombia still remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, with 19 unionists killed in 2016 — the highest number of any country. As the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) explained in its most recent report, “it should not be forgotten that Colombia remains one of the worst violators of trade union rights with a horrendous record for impunity regarding the murders of trade unionists. Threats, violence and intimidation against trade unionists have a deep-rooted culture in Colombia and have continued apace in 2017.”

Moreover, killings of community leaders and defenders overall is still a major problem that threatens to destabilize the positive changes occurring with the signing of a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

According to Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman between January 2016 and March 2017 community leaders suffered 156 homicides, 5 forced disappearances and another 33 were subjected to assassination attempts. Most of the responsibility for these murders is attributable to Colombia’s paramilitary groups. The Colombian State minimizes their existence by stating them to be purely criminal bands linked to narco-trafficking (BACRIM) or more recently armed illegal groups (GAO). The latter is done to separate any State responsibility or connection with these groups that succeeded the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) that formally demobilized in the 2000s. With the AUC human rights experts documented numerous links, collusion or omission of action when it came to them, politicians, security forces, intelligence and government entities.

On September 20, the Colombian Association of Civil Aviators (ACDAC), the largest pilot union representing more than half of the pilots of Colombia’s flagship airline Avianca, began a strike after both sides failed to reach an agreement over salary, benefits and collective agreements. The situation has since turned ugly. Avianca has called the strike “illegal,” claiming that transportation is an “essential public service,” and that these workers are therefore allegedly exempt from constitutional protections for the right to strike. The company is attempting to bring in scab pilots from its operations in other countries to crush the union. Adding to the problem are reports in the national media that stigmatize these workers, generating public rejection of the pilots by repeating false information about the strike.

According to ACDAC, they are striking not just to put Colombian pilots’ salaries on par with other pilots working for Avianca in other countries, the latter currently making 30% to 70% higher wages than their Colombian counterparts, but also to guarantee standards that make flying safe for everyone. Pilots’ well-being, rest and benefits all affect aviation security. This labor dispute has been ongoing since 2013, with the US-Colombia Labor Action Plan’s Labor Ministry unable to broker talks between the company and the union to end the strike.

This situation is just one of the many examples that support the January 11, 2017 report by the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs that notes concerns regarding “the system in place to protect the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining in Colombia.” For example, at least 22 port workers were arbitrarily fired this year due to efforts to organize, this despite the fact that the ports are a priority sector of the USLAP and vital to the infrastructure of trade between the U.S. and Colombia.

Just as American labor learned the hard way after President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union (PATCO) strike in 1981, how the Colombian pilots’ dispute is resolved will determine how other collective bargaining cases advance in Colombia. As such, it is essential that the U.S. labor movement and Congressional supporters pay attention and guarantee a positive resolution in favor of the Colombian pilots so we do not see a domino effect of union busting throughout Colombia as we did in the U.S. after the crushing of the PATCO strike.

Gimena Sanchez, WOLA Senior Associate for Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas, co-authored this piece.

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