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Anti-Union Violence in Colombia Keeps Workers from Joining

By Dave Kittross  3/14/2008
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Murders of Colombian union officials have declined since 2002, but continued kidnappings, threats and forced dislocations are affecting union membership, says a researcher who tracks anti-union violence.

Since 1989, more than 2,500 union members and officials have been killed in Colombia, but with the 2002 election of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the number of assassinations of trade unionists has decreased, said Lucian Vasquez, director general of the Colombian think tank Escuela Nacional Sindical, during a Feb. 27, 2008, presentation at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

However, along with the decline in murders of union officials and members, there has been a drop in the prosecution of suspected assassins, he said. Since 2006, none of the accused killers of Colombian trade unionists has gone on trial, he added.

In his campaign for president, Uribe promised a crackdown on violence, and his policies have resulted in a decrease in guerrilla violence, but there has been an increase in extrajudicial executions perpetrated by right-wing death squads and security forces, Vasquez said. Kidnappings, threats and forced dislocations of union members and officials are more prevalent than ever, he added. The violence is responsible for the low rate of unionization—about 2.5 percent—among Colombia’s workers, including those in key agricultural sectors such as coffee, sugar and flowers, he said.

Vasquez criticizes the Bush Administration for continuing to seek a free-trade agreement with Colombia despite the continuing abuse of union members. Like most free-trade agreements, it likely will include general language addressing human rights, but the U.S.-Colombia pact probably would not include specific, quid-pro-quo provisions involving trade benefits and labor rights, he said. A trade agreement without provisions for labor rights “would be catastrophic for us,” he added.

However, some leading members of the U.S. Congress are aware of the issue of violence against union members and officials. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., has asked the Colombian government for information on why it removed Judge Jose Nirio Sanchez from a three-judge panel that is handling Colombia’s backlog of criminal cases involving assassinations of union leaders and members. Sanchez was removed from the panel in January 2008 after he made rulings that held military and government officials responsible for a number of the murders.

“As the U.S. Congress debates the proposed trade agreement with Colombia, it is essential that we consider whether Colombia is doing everything it can to protect the safety of workers who want to exercise their basic workplace rights without worrying about becoming a victim of violence,” Miller said in a written statement. “A trade agreement will not help workers in either country if the basic rights of workers and union members in Colombia are not protected,” he said.

Dave Kittross is a freelance writer and editor based in Chevy Chase, Md., who has extensive experience writing about the federal government.

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