Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Workers of the Americas at Risk: The Cases of Wisconsin, Colombia, and Guatemala

by Carlos Cruz, Colombia Team

The workers of the Americas are facing an all-out attack on their rights and their lives. The recent effort to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker failed and Colombia and Guatemala were ranked numbers one and two on the list of the deadliest countries in the world to exercise labor rights in a recent International Trade Union Confederation annual survey of labor rights. Colombian, Guatemalan and U.S workers all face diminishing unionization rates, an anti-union climate and government policies that systematically chip away at workers’ rights.
Scott Walker, a corporate-backed politician, has been launching an all-out assault on labor in the presidential battleground state of Wisconsin. His policies drew over a million signatures for his recall principally from the labor movement, but grassroots efforts couldn’t stand up to the $30 million from special interests and campaign supporters.
Walker is part of the faction in the U.S. political landscape that portrays labor unions as infringing on corporate profits and driving jobs to countries where labor is cheap and flexible like Colombia and Guatemala, instead of recognizing their role in having brought the American middle class to a prosperous wellbeing. The rate of unionized workers in the U.S. has dropped from 20% of the workforce in 1983 to 11.8% in 2011.
The economic downturn in the U.S. has been used by politicians like Scott Walker to justify efforts to cut public sector workers’ wages and benefits, and to eliminate or restrict their collective bargaining rights. “Working America, firefighters, teachers and nurses - are not responsible for the reckless actions of Wall Street, which led to this crisis in the first place,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings.
The same economic downturn saw the Obama administration pass the Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in efforts to boost the U.S economy.  As we have already seen in recent history, free trade agreements make labor conditions more precarious for workers throughout the Americas and only serve to truly benefit multinationals that profit off of cheap labor abroad, thus weakening unionized, organized workers in the U.S. What is concerning is that Colombia and Guatemala—both free trade partners with the U.S.— hold the worst record for labor violence. U.S. companies are taking advantage of a hostile labor climate for workers to increase their profits.

Colombia Guatemala and Free Trade

Several serious and repeated failures by the Governments of Colombia and Guatemala to properly address levels of violence and labor rights violations have been brought up to the United States before and after the ratification of their bilateral free trade agreements. It’s been cited that both countries have weak and corrupt institutions and are not able to effectively enforce their own labor laws and international norms nor protect their workforce from violence. The case of Colombia is demonstrative as some 3,000 labor union members have been killed since the 1980’s.
Labor conditions in Colombia and Guatemala have remained unchanged or have worsened since the free trade agreements were ratified. Violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, along with increases in the number of murders and death threats against union members, are rampant in Colombia and Guatemala. Seven members of Guatemala’s largest agricultural union whose products are sold to California-based Del Monte were murdered in 2011.  So far in this year alone, seven Colombian trade unionists have been killed despite the Santos and Obama administrations signing a Labor Action Plan that was intended to reduce violence and labor rights abuses.

U.S. efforts have not been enough to resolve the flagrant human rights’ abuses of its trade partners. Even after Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO filed the first Central American Free Trade Agreement labor compliant for threats, illegal firings, abuse and murder, nothing has come about as a result four years after the fact. In Colombia, the now disbanded government security agency that received U.S. funding—DAS—was found to be involved in sending information about a trade union leader to a paramilitary group that ultimately ended in his death in 2009. The governments of Colombia and Guatemala have failed to adequately investigate death threats and murders in almost all cases. There have been mechanisms to address these issues, like labor complaints in the case of Guatemala and the Labor Action Plan in Colombia, but neither have changed the climate of impunity and repression towards workers.
Although workers in the United States do not face death threats and murder like their Colombian and Guatemalan counterparts, there is an array of anti-union tactics used by employers. Union busting consulting firms and an encroaching legal framework, that bans public employees from striking, for example, are limiting labor unions’ capacity to protect workers’ rights. In Colombia and Guatemala, in addition to the physical dangers encountered by labor leaders, a common threat is the subcontracting of workers to circumvent contracts, benefits and—most of all—the formation of labor unions.
Even though labor unions face setbacks and encroaching policies that limit their rights, the bulk of the grassroots efforts to recall Scott Walker in Wisconsin and the staunch opposition to the U.S.-Colombia FTA came from the labor movement in both the U.S and Colombia. The labor movement in Guatemala with support from the U.S. labor movement has been able to highlight and bring international attention to the situation in Guatemala.  In both these international cases, much attention has been brought forward to the international arena, where organisms like the International 
Labor Organization have handed down critical recommendations that have not been accorded the political will by either government to actually bring about the change needed to alter the critical reality of workers’ rights. However the rank and file of these countries along with the U.S. grassroots labor movement will continue to bring these abuses forward to place pressure on governments to meaningfully comply with and fulfill the rule of law that is being denied to many workers throughout the Americas.
Witness for Peace delegation acompanying Port Workers Union during a strike that led to 80 direct contracts.


  1. I have been visiting Colombia for the past two weeks and I have been talking to both sides of the conflict: The Union workers and the Goverment officials. It is difficult to get a clear picture of the fact, but there was a new element that came to my attention and it sort of explains a lot. Since Colombia is a country that has been decimated by the guerrilla for the last 50 years and, apparently the guerrilla has found its way to infiltrate Unions and instead of fighting for the laborer rights they are more interested in causing industrial chaos, social discomfort, and enrolling adepts to their lines. I DO NOT JUSTIFY ANY TYPE OF KILLING be it guerrilla, governement members of paramilitary, but I think that your site should be a little less bias and bring the facts as they are as you may be bringing half truths, which sometimes can be worse than lies. I hope for this country to find peace and for all workers to get equal fair rights.

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    1. Based on WFP's 12 years working with unions in Colombia we believe it is both untrue and dangerous to suggest that unions are infiltrated by guerrillas. In fact, that false allegation has been used by right-wing paramilitary and neo-paramilitary groups as well as state security forces to justify killing approximately 2,800 union members and leaders since the 1980s