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Colombia: Union leaders face death threat

Lee Sustar reports on the background to the death threats made against two union leaders at a major steel tube manufacturer in Colombia.

23 October 2009

This article first appeared in Socialist Worker (US)

TWO UNION leaders representing workers at the important Tenaris steel tube plant in Colombia have received death threats--an urgent matter in a country where at least 40 labor activists have already been murdered this year.

On August 31, Jairo del Rio, Colombia, president of Sindicato de Trabajadores de Tubos del Caribe (SINTRATUCAR, the Tenaris workers' union) and a member of the Socialist Workers Party (the Colombian section of the International Workers League) received the following death threat:

Mr. Jairo del Rio. We want to make it clear that the goals of your union organization are causing a lot of trouble, and that your efforts to speak out against certain things are not in your interests. We would remind you that in this country guerrilla communists like you and your group die fast, so you better stop interfering in things that are not your business. We would like to remind you that you have a beautiful family that you should take care of, even more so with your pregnant wife who leaves home everyday at 5:30 a.m. to take your son to school.

It would be really tragic if something happened to them because of you. The guerrilla movement in this country will be destroyed because it will be destroyed, and the guerrillas living as civilians like you even more so. Take care of you and of yours. 

What you can do 

E-mail messages calling for the protection of the two union leaders and the workers they represent at Tenaris to:

Mr. Rubén Fidalgo
General Manager, Tubos del Caribe Tenaris S.A.

Copy the message to:

Álvaro Uribe Vélez
President of Colombia

Fabio Valencia Cosio
Minister for Justice, Colombia

Wolmar Antonio Pérez
Public defender



The day after, the union's vice president, Deivis Blanco, received a similar threat.

Such efforts to intimidate labor activists in Colombia are commonplace--and death threats are often carried out. According to the International Confederation of Trade Unions, 49 trade unionists were murdered in 2008, 10 more than in 2007, "despite assurances by the administration of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe that the situation was improving," the union federation said in a statement.

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COLOMBIA IS the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist. Over the past two decades, a staggering 5,000 union leaders and activists have been murdered.

Responsibility for these killings lies with a shadowy network of employers and right-wing paramilitary groups that claim to fight left-wing guerillas but in fact are involved in the drug trade, and serve as enforcers for big business. Colombian government officials, for their part, do nothing to protect the targeted workers--and local officials sometimes have been implicated in the killings.

The green light for this repression comes from the highest levels of Colombian politics. The U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP) noted that:

a presidential advisor, José Obdulio Gaviria, suggested in February [2008] that organizers of a march against violence were affiliated with the guerrillas. Several trade unionists reportedly associated with the march were then murdered the week of the march, March 4, prompting a letter of outrage signed by leading U.S. human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. 

Since Uribe's first full year in office, 2003, more trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. Stan Gacek of the AFL-CIO told the IPS news service earlier this year that 95 percent of such killings have gone unsolved and unpunished over the last 23 years. And "if we consider all acts of violence against Colombian unionists since 1986, including not only homicides, but abductions, assaults and torture, for example, the impunity rate soars to 99.9 percent," Gacek said.

The repression has been effective in breaking workers' power. As USLEAP noted, "the rate of unionization in Colombia has been cut by half (from 9.3 percent in 1984 to 4.6 percent in 2005) and the number of workers covered under new collective bargaining agreements has dropped to a fraction of its previous number, falling from 260,000 to 60,000 in the past 10 years."

This violence against workers isn't just carried out by assassins working for small-time local bosses. Many of the victimized employees work at major corporations.

According to Domingo Tovar, secretary general of Colombia's Central Union of Labor (CUT), multinational companies from the U.S., Canada, Spain and Switzerland in "one way or another sponsor paramilitarism and violations of fundamental human rights." Among these companies are U.S.-based Chiquita Brands and Dole, Switzerland's Nestle and Telmex, the Mexican telecommunications giant.

Tenaris, too, is a major global company. It's a multinational corporation that manufactures steel tubes for the energy industry worldwide. Besides its facilities in Colombia, the company has major operations in Argentina and Italy.

At its Cartagena, Colombia plant, Tenaris managers at first had their way with a nonunion workforce. But Jairo del Rio, Deivis Blanco and other workers recently organized to form SINTRATUCAR. In a statement, union officials explained what happened next:

SINTRATUCAR is a union that has, in legal terms, only just been born, as our founding assembly was held on March 15 of this year. And now, by presenting a modest list of demands to the Tenaris Transnational Tubos del Caribe Ltd., we are in a labor dispute, which has not been resolved.

The problem is that we believe that unions should be in direct confrontation with employers in defending the rights and interests of workers--and this is not well received by those who operate clandestinely, or who want to keep workers under the conditions of slavery and exploitation that existed before the union. 

What's more, the successful unionization effort at SINTRATUCAR spurred organizing efforts at other workplaces in the city. So the threats to del Rio and Blanco are also intended as a warning to other workers who wish to form unions to defend their rights.

But it's also possible for workers to push back. Multinational corporations are sensitive to allegations that their Colombian managers are involved in the killing of union leaders--and therefore these employers can be pressured to make public statements denying any involvement with such actions. At Tenaris, the workers are considering stopping work for several hours to pressure management.

International solidarity is also key. The SINTRATACUR workers have already received support from important activists, including João Pascoal, coordinator of the National Commission of the Workers at Santander Bank of Portugal; Todd Frayn, president of United Steelworkers Local 9548 in Canada; the National Coordination of Struggle (Conlutas) in Brazil; and, in Peru, Rony Cueto, Secretary General of the Contract Miners of Shougang and José Sandoval Elías, Secretary of Defense for the General Confederation of Labor.

Activists in the U.S. have a special role to play, given that Colombia is in the spotlight over the proposed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Some liberal Democrats in Congress have threatened to hold up approval of the trade deal unless and until Colombia improves its human rights record.

The immediate task is to force Tenaris and the Colombian authorities to do what's necessary to protect del Rio, Blanco and the other workers under threat.



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