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SINTRAINAGRO in Colombia - Much More than Collective Bargaining

Posted to the IUF website 31-May-2006

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From SIREL, the news service of the IUF Latin American Regional organization

On March 29, the Colombian National Union of Agroindustry Workers (SINTRAINAGRO) and the association of banana producers began negotiations to renew the collective bargaining agreement covering 16,000 banana workers. Bargaining began at a very delicate –even crucial– time for the Colombian labor movement, amid the consolidation of an authoritarian and exclusionary agricultural model, now furthered by the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. On May 25, SINTRAINAGRO successfully concluded the negotiations for a new 3-year CBA, thus averting a sector-wide strike for which the union had prepared (read about the agreement here).

Introduction

Recounting the history of violence in Colombia without referring to Urabá’s recent past is as unthinkable as discussing the struggle and challenges faced by the Colombian labor movement without taking into account the role of SINTRAINAGRO in the history and unionizing of banana workers.

Urabá, a region torn by violence, saw the emergence of a trade union that was not only able to move forward in spite of the deep wounds inflicted by armed groups, but which has also been able to secure, with intelligence and unity, a Collective Bargaining Agreement for the entire banana sector, in a country that shows a clear “withering away of collective bargaining,” as denounced by the labor movement on the occasion of the ILO Mission in October 2005.

In the early 1990s, as violence escalated in Urabá in particular – where it took on its most radical form – a number of economic and political reforms were undertaken in Colombia with the aim of placing the country under the directives of neoliberalism. This was translated into the implementation of measures which had a very negative impact on the world of labor, among others, intensifying a systematic process of increasing precariousness of work and vulnerability of workers, as unemployment mounted to unprecedented levels.

The country veered away from the guiding principles established in the 1991 Constitution, speeding up the process of rising social exclusion and disintegration, and growing inequity of income distribution, and promoting a greater concentration of wealth. “The country suffered a process of deindustrialization. Labor laws were reformed –and rendered meaningless–, and private social security systems were set up. Law 100, which stripped workers of job security, was passed, and now, 16 years later, the country has been impoverished and inequality has spread,” Hernán Correa, vice president of CUT and secretary general of SINTRAINAGRO told the IUF.

It was down this road that the vast majority of Colombian society and Colombia as a nation lost the safeguard of their food sovereignty.

Urabá in the 1990s: The Most Violent Corner in the World

From 1990 to 1995, some 170 thousand violent deaths occurred in Colombia. Canada, with a population similar to that of Colombia, registered a mere seven murders with firearms in 1990, compared to 25 thousand in Colombia. In this scenario of turmoil and chaos, Urabá was the region most affected by the spiraling violence that shook the very foundations of the nation. Multiple violent actors converged there, with radically opposed interests that generated a tangled mesh of social and armed conflicts.

The largest number of massacres, selective murders and forced displacements in the country were being committed in Urabá, Colombia’s most northeastern region. Every violent event and tragedy in Colombia was represented there, as in a microcosm: kidnappings, tortures, displacements, murders, retaliations, and massacres. It was a meeting point for different protagonists of violence: drug-traffickers, smugglers, paramilitaries, guerrillas, army and hired guns who for 10 or 15 dollars would kill anyone.

In 1995, more than 700 people were killed in the region, of which 111 were labor leaders and union activists, almost all of them members of SINTRAINAGRO.

During those years, Guillermo Rivera, now president of SINTRAINAGRO, used to say: “The main problem Urabá has is the absence of the state; this is no-man’s land, a forsaken land left in the hands of violent groups.”

The union was (and is) the center and basis of civil society in the region, where people went with their most diverse problems, caused both by armed violence and by the violence generated by poverty. During that time, the basic necessities of 82 percent of the population were unsatisfied, and only 18 out of every 100 inhabitants had basic services. As a result, SINTRAINAGRO became a permanent target of attack from armed groups. In less than 20 years, the Union lost several of its main leaders and numerous activists. It is estimated that more than 400 of its members were murdered.

The IUF’s international campaign “We Are All Urabá,” which was deployed worldwide, with public demonstrations in the leading cities of Latin America and Europe, was instrumental in lifting the cloak of silence that hung over the region, burying it in the most opprobrious impunity. There isn’t a single affiliate in our International organization that does not know the struggle and difficulties faced by SINTRAINAGRO, because all of them, in one way or another, voiced their solidarity with the banana workers of Urabá.

How to Be a Labour Activist in Colombia and Not Die in the Attempt

According to the United Workers’ Federation (CUT), 1,500 unionists were murdered in the 1990s. Although the number of murders has gone down in recent years, Colombia is still one of the most violent countries and holds the ignominious record of having the largest number of unionists murdered. From January to December 2001, 125 labor activists were murdered in Colombia. In 2003, 72 CUT unionists met the same fate. That same year, seven of every ten union activists murdered in the world were Colombian.

In 2004, CUT issued an “SOS to Union Organizations of the World,” calling on them to take action against the wiping out of Colombia’s labor movement. Convened for September 15, the aim of the action was to put a stop to the barbarity against the labor movement.

In 2005, 70 unionists were killed, and more than 260 received death threats. The Colombian and international labor movements presented a document to the Mission organized by the ILO, demanding “The full observance of the right to life of all citizens, all workers, and all trade union members and leaders.” It is unacceptable –the document stated– that with the argument that the number of murders has been reduced, less importance be given to the persistence of an intolerable antiunion violence and, what is worse, an almost complete impunity for the crimes committed against trade unionists. According to a report by the General Prosecutor’s Office (dated July 17, 2003), of a total of 1,210 cases of antiunion violence that were investigated, 99.4% remained unpunished.

To this we must add the growing number of arbitrary arrests of union activists. This situation was also denounced to the ILO Mission, concluding that both direct violence and these intimidating practices “have brought union membership down to unacceptable levels with respect to the economically active population.”

Amnesty International, in a recent article entitled “The Labor Movement Under the Gun,” reported that “since the year 2000 more than 750 labour activists have been victims of homicide, and at least a hundred have been ‘disappeared.’ In 2005 alone, 73 labor activists were murdered or ‘disappeared,’ and more than 200 received death threats.”

Amnesty International concurs with the report presented by the labor movement to the ILO regarding arbitrary arrests of unionists by police forces. “These arrests are frequently made on the basis of information provided by hired military informants, instead of by impartial investigations conducted by judicial authorities. Many of these activists have later been released due to lack of evidence, but some have been killed or threatened shortly after they were released.”

Against this background, UNAC and IUF Latin America have addressed the President of Colombia concerning the illegal and arbitrary arrest of six leaders of the Agro-Food and Livestock Production Union of Caquetá, and the earlier murder of Reynel Duque Ramírez, a community leader and union leader, who was found dead on September 15, 2005 in the Orteguaza river and whose death remains unpunished.

In their March 15, 2006 letter, UNAC and IUF Latin America declared that The unpunished murder of our fellow worker Reynel Duque Ramírez and these last arrests are all part of a policy of land devastation, which is depopulating rural areas, promoting land concentration, and deepening the processes of impoverishment, inequity, and social exclusion. We are committed to the forging of processes where democracy and development converge, guided by a conception of citizenship in which citizens are capable of actions that transform reality for the better. We seek to empower citizens through a participatory, critical exercise of their citizenship as an antithesis to authoritarianism. However, it seems that the activities of IUF, UNAC and its Caquetá division are treated as a terrorist threat; as if our work towards achieving food security and sovereignty are seen as subversive banners; as if our efforts to increase social density in rural areas are rendering us instrumental to armed groups.

Trade Unions Today... And Tomorrow?

Colombia’s economically active population stands at 20.5 million people, 3 million of whom are unemployed. The “labor force duly connected with the formal sector of the economy amounts to 8 million people, the rest (61 percent) is all informal labor,” Jorge Villada, CUT advisor, informed IUF Latin America.

In its 2005 activity report, CUT indicates that all the labor federations and the non-federated sector gather 866,238 workers, which means that the rate of unionization is around 5 percent. The breakdown by sector of union membership of the largest workers’ federation of Colombia, CUT, reveals that more than 60 percent of its members are public sector workers. “CUT currently has a membership of 564,523, most of which are teachers or health care workers.” This makes the situation in the private sector even more disastrous.

The agricultural sector, for its part, has a rate of unionization of 1.8 percent of the total employed population. Villada highlights the fact that “almost 4 million people participate in the agriculture and livestock sector,” and concludes that it is “one of the sectors that offers the greatest possibilities for union expansion.”

A study by the Labor Market and Social Security Observatory of the Externado University concludes that “In the last years of the 1980s unions lost more than 200,000 members, which they never recovered.”

From another angle, certain deficiencies and differences at the heart of the labor movement have also been observed in the last decades, contributing to the movement's paralysis. The president of CUT, Carlos Rodríguez Díaz, argues that “the labor movement’s scarce capacity for response is due to its low representativity, which is proportional to the country’s incipient development. But, 866,000 workers organized in more than 2,800 unions is simply absurd.” He underlines the importance of “taking on the challenge of convincing the country’s union leaders of the need to change the labor movement. From a fragmented labor movement scattered in small unions, to the establishment of unions by branch of economic and services activity, which will have greater representativity, and therefore greater bargaining power and political and social weight.”

Gerardo Iglesias (IUF Latin America Regional Secretary) and Luis A. Pedraza (President, UNAC)
© Rel-UITA
May 24, 2006