Colombian workers risk lives to organize unions

PORTLAND, Ore. – Labor organizers who think it’s tough to unionize in the United States should hear Juan Carlos Galvis. Galvis is a worker at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, and vice president of SINALTRAINAL, a 5,000-member union of food and beverage workers. Like hundreds of other trade unionists in Colombia, he has death threats and armed attackers to contend with.

Galvis was in Portland, Ore., Oct. 17, part of a month-long U.S. speaking tour sponsored by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the International Labor Rights Fund, intended to raise awareness about conditions for unionists in Colombia.

Colombia, a nation of 41 million residents almost twice the size of Texas, has suffered through four decades of civil war. Leftist guerrilla groups control portions of the countryside, while in many cities and parts of the countryside, right-wing paramilitary groups terrorize union organizers, women’s rights groups, student groups and others, with impunity from the police and military.

It’s the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Of the 213 people killed worldwide last year for being involved in a union, 184 were Colombian.

According to the U.S. State Department, the right-wing paramilitaries are doing most of the killing, and almost none of the killings have resulted in anyone being charged.

“Paramilitaries’ targeting of trade unionists is in keeping with the general policy of the Colombian state, which views trade unionists as subversives,” said Dan Kovalik, assistant general counsel for the USWA, which is waging a lawsuit to try to hold Coca-Cola responsible for the violence against its union workers.

In 2001, Galvis started getting phone calls threatening his life if he didn’t resign from the union. A man on a motorcycle stopped Galvis’ wife on the street with the message that he would be killed if he continued to speak out. It’s a grave and credible threat. Since 1990, nine leaders of Galvis’ union have been assassinated, one of them at the Coca-Cola plant where he worked in Carepa, in northwestern Colombia. In that incident, after the leader was assassinated, his co-workers were gathered at the plant at gunpoint and told to resign their union membership or be killed. Paramilitaries also burned down the union hall. No one has been arrested in any of these crimes.

Because of international attention and pressure from American unions like the Steelworkers, the Colombian government assigned Galvis temporary bodyguards.

On Aug. 22, he was on his way home in the middle of the day when two men on a motorcycle pulled up alongside the car and opened fire. His bodyguards returned fire, and the attackers sped off. The day before Galvis’ Portland appearance, a member of a women’s group led by his wife was assassinated.

None of this, he says, has swayed him from his mission. Why does he remain active in the union in the face of such danger? “Because it’s a just struggle,” he answers in Spanish. “Because we want peace and social justice; because we can’t let Colombia be dominated by violence; because we love life, and believe that another Colombia is possible, that another world is possible.”

Galvis says the Coca-Cola subsidiary Pan American Beverages has violated Colombia’s labor law. As a worker in distribution, he earns $314 a month and has 15 days off a year. There’s a union contract, but Galvis says that day-to-day in the plants, managers discourage union membership. And the company is using temporary workers to push wages down.

Galvis is a plaintiff in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court filed by the Steelworkers and the International Labor Rights Fund. The suit seeks to hold Coca-Cola and two of its Colombian bottlers responsible for using paramilitaries to engage in anti-union violence. A federal judge dismissed Coca-Cola as a defendant, but is allowing the case to proceed against its Colombian subsidiaries.

The Portland talk was hosted by the Cross-Border Labor Organizing Committee and Witness for Peace. More information about the campaign is available at www.killercoke.org.

Galvis’ government-sponsored protection is due to end Nov. 30.

Reprinted with permission from the Nov. 7 issue of the Northwest Labor Press, www.nwlaborpress.org. Don McIntosh is the associate editor.