United Steel Workers and California Labor Federation Stand Up for Colombian Unions and Peace

by James Jordan

North American unionists have taken a significant step forward in solidarity with Colombian unionists-one that raises intriguing possibilities for the development of a new kind of worker to worker internationalism. Both the United Steel Workers (USW) and the California Labor Federation (CLF) have spoken out on behalf of the the beleaguered peasant labor federation FENSUAGRO (the National Unitary Federation of Agricultural Unions), with special attention called to their role in the Patriotic March. The Patriotic March (Marcha Patriótica) is a new Colombian popular mobilization that advocates for a political solution to the country’s decades long armed and social conflict. It is not a single event, but an ongoing campaign.

In a July 11, 2012 letter signed by USW President Leo Gerard and addressed to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Gerard explains that

I am writing on behalf of Workers Uniting — the international union created by Unite, the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland, and the United Steelworkers (USW), North America’s largest private sector union — to express our grave concern for the leaders and members of our Colombian partner, FENSUAGRO. FENSUAGRO is Colombia’s largest agricultural union and is deeply involved in the peace process known as “la Marcha Patriótica”. It is presently being targeted for extreme violence, including the assassination of its leaders, because of both its labor and peace activism. In some cases, it appears that the Colombian military itself may be involved in this violence against FENSUAGRO

In just over a week, two leaders of FENSUAGRO have been assassinated. On June 14, 2012, GERARDO MARTINEZ….was assassinated. This assassination took place in the context of the Colombian Army’s 17th and 28th Mobile Brigades occupying civilian houses and farms and installing a military base in Calandaima, and protests by thousands of peasants and indigenous against this military activity. He never arrived home. His body was found the following day on a nearby farm. He had been shot five times, twice in the head, and his body showed signs of having been tortured before being murdered. Then, on June 25, 2012 at 4:00 p.m., in the municipality of Caloto in the Cauca department — an area of military control and constant operations by members of Colombia’s Mobile Brigade No. 14 — GUSTAVO LONDOÑO was fatally shot by two men travelling by motorcycle. Mr. Londoño was the leader of the human rights department of the local section of FENSUAGRO and an active member of the southwestern chapter of the Patriotic March….

In addition…the regional President of FENSUAGRO, FREDY CHATE, has been followed and threatened by unknown men. On June 19th, he was detained by soldiers at a military check point, falsely accusing him of being a guerrilla. It was only when colleagues came to protest that he was finally released.

The above-described events make it clear that those individuals affiliated with FENSAUGRO are not safe from violent reprisals…This type of violence, targeting unionists and peace activists, must be brought to an end once and for all. We will be monitoring this situation very closely.”

Copies of the letter were also sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and US Ambassador to Colombia Michael McKinley.

Delegates to the California Labor Federation unanimously passed on July 24, 2012, the Resolution for the Safety of Labor Leaders in Colombia. The CLF has a membership of 2.1 million and represents one of every six AFL-CIO members nationwide. The resolution additionally expresses concern for members of SINALTRAINAL (National Union of Food System Workers). The CLF statement follows upon a previous letter issued by the South Bay Labor Council of San Jose, California which itself represents over 100,000 union members. The resolution by the CLF was submitted by Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 in San Jose, representing 2,300 pipe trade workers. The Local 393 members discussed and passed the resolution unanimously in a regular meeting on July 11, 2012 and sent it directly to the CLF.

The CLF’s Resolution reports that,

…We are deeply concerned about the current violence that confronts unions in Colombia. particularly those unions which are involved with the Patriotic March….Leaders in the agricultural union, FENSUAGRO, have been specially targeted because of the union’s role in developing the new movement, specifically: union activist Gerardo Martinez was assassinated on June 14, 2012 near Calandaima where he had helped organize a protest against army actions to install a military base that displaced the families of peasant and indigenous residents….Fredy Chate, a regional President of FENSUAGRO has been threatened with death, followed, and detained at a military checkpoint, and…these events follow upon death threats against Jimmy Ortiz Gutierrez and the disappearance of Herman Henry Diaz last April, both FENSUAGRO leaders…..

We are very concerned for the lives and safety of leaders in SINALTRAINAL, the food workers union.  Juan Carlos Galvis survived a paramilitary home invasion. William Mendoza’s young daughter survived an attempted kidnapping….Mr. Mendoza spoke to various unions in Northern California a few years ago and was made an Honorary Member of the ILWU [Editor's Note: International Longshore and Warehouse Union].  Now the two men are also living under the cloud of false criminal charges (by the testimony of one paramilitary) which doubly endanger their lives.” [Editor's Note: Paramilitaries are members of unofficial, right-wing death squads]

The CLF resolution called for the protection of union members and leaders, as well as for all charges against Galvis and Mendoza to be dropped.

The Gerard letter and the CLF statement both express solidarity for two unions that are strong advocates for a negotiated political solution to Colombia’s internal conflict, and that are both members of the Left-leaning CUT (Unitary Workers Center) labor federation. Both statements prominently mention FENSUAGRO’s participation in the Patriotic March and its advocacy for peace. Both SINALTRAINAL and FENSUAGRO oppose US and Colombian government activities that promote war and the repression and displacement of union members. (The US government has contributed over $8 billion through Plan Colombia for military aid and related support efforts.) More so, FENSUAGRO, as a part of the Patriotic March, is helping mount a community-based political challenge to the oligarchy that wields power in Colombia. By issuing such calls, the USW and the California Labor Federation are providing the kind of international solidarity that is necessary for the success of a legitimate peace process.

The USW letter and CLF resolution raise intriguing new possibilities for labor solidarity and foreign affairs. While the answers have not yet been formulated, the questions have: is it possible that these statements could help pave the way to a new movement for real, internationalist and worker to worker solidarity? Might they help open space for a reformulation of international relations throughout US and North American labor?

For progressive unionists everywhere, the hoped-for answer will be, “Yes!”

One place for unionists to begin is to press among their locals and labor federations for similar actions to be taken in solidarity with FENSUAGRO, SINALTRAINAL and the Patriotic March. Such efforts will not only help secure a safe environment for Colombian unionists, but also will help homegrown efforts for a new internationalism on the part of North American unions.

WILL YOU TAKE ONE OR BOTH OF THE FOLLOWING ACTIONS FOR PEACE AND LABOR RIGHTS IN COLOMBIA?

1. If you are a member of a Labor Union or of any collective body, such as a church, a food co-op or a social club, get your local to pass a resolution or write a letter similar to those sent by the United Steel Workers and the California Labor Federation. Demand an end to the violence directed against Colombian unionists and peace activists, especially the membership of FENSUAGRO, SINTALTRAINAL and the Patriotic March. Send your statements to the following Colombian government and United Nations email adresses, including a copy to the Alliance for Global Justice:

fsantos@presidencia.gov.co, ministro@minjusticia.gov.co, juanoviedo@presidencia.gov.co, martha.carrillo@presidencia.gov.co, diana.celils@mininterior.gov.co, asuntosdefensor@defensoria.org.co, agenda@agenda.gov.co, reygon@procaduria.gov.co, oacnudh@hchr.org.co, james@afgj.org, defensoria@defensoria.org.co

NOTE: There is a good chance some of these emails will bounce. It’s common that after certain Colombian government offices start receiving a number of emails such as these, that they start rejecting new messages. AfGJ will make sure that any such statements are given to the proper authorities as well as to the national leadership of FENSUAGRO, SINALTRAINAL and the Patriotic March.

2. Invite a member of the Alliance for Global Justice Colombia Working Group or the Campaign for Labor Rights to give a presentation to your union, class, church or other groups.  To make a request send an email to james@afgj.org or call 202-544-0355.