By Juan S. Lombo, EL ESPECTADOR, January 29, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Push and pull with the political parties, official persecution and even paramilitary violence have been some of the trends for labor unions in this country in their more than 100 years of existence.

On the same day that the Minister of Defense, Carlos Holmes Trujillo died of Covid-19, the labor leader Julio Roberto Gómez died from the same cause. He had fought for workers for 30 years, and had become the head of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT in Spanish), one of the most important unions in this country. His departure left the labor movement without one of its models, just at the moment when the labor movement seems to be on the rise, even though its membership is decreasing. What’s certain is that, historically, this is not a different situation. There have been periods of acceptance, and some lean years. The only constant is that labor unions in Colombia are synonymous with political tension and official persecution.

Their first expression goes back to the 19th century, as Miguel Urrutia recounts in his book, History of Labor Unions in Colombia. He tells how the first movement touching on workers rights began in 1847 with the Artisans Society of Bogotá. They joined together to answer the attempt by the Tomas Cipriano de Mosquera government to end tariffs on imported manufactured products. The measure clearly disadvantaged the artisans as, with the steamboats on the Magdalena River, the foreign products were cheaper than those made in the capital. The convergence of the artisans and their complaints attracted the attention of the Liberal Party. They joined together and were able to attain their political goal.

In June of 1848, when presidential elections were indirect, there was not a majority sufficient to declare a winner, and the Congress had to choose among the three with the most votes. The rumors that the artisans had bought all of the gunpowder, knives, and machetes in the city and of their assault on the Capitol guaranteed victory for the Liberal José Hilario López. The advantage of using their own efforts, which even protected them from the Army with its conservative tendencies, led the Liberals to found other societies all over the country but, among the political feuds, they ended up divided between supporters of protectionism (Gólgothas) and those that sought free trade (Draconians).

That dispute brought serious tensions, most of all in Bogotá, where they ended up in violent clashes in which the Army took part. There were killings in both groups and an estrangement of the artisans’ societies, whose focus was purely political. During the rest of the 19th Century and at the beginning of the 20th, the labor unions were limited to unionization and mutual collaboration. Only after 1917, after the Russian revolution, did the subject start to stir again, and that was the official beginning of the trade union movement in Colombia. As the historian Álvaro Tirado Mejía commented to El Espectador after the First World War, the first socialist groups gave rise to the first labor unions.

At the beginning, as Urrutia points out, not only the Conservative Party but also the Liberal Party steered clear of the trade union movement, because of its socialist and communist ideas. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party platform led to the first workers’ congresses. In those first years the subject of discord turned out to be the imports, and they started putting together demonstrations that ended up in lawlessness, such as a tailors’ protest in 1919 that resulted in 20 deaths. Unlike in some countries, the trade union and worker rights movement became stronger away from the capitals, most frequently in areas like the banana region or Barrancabermeja, where the United States multinationals United Fruit Company and Tropical Oil Company were operating.

Well-known personages like María Cano (the flower of labor) or Raúl Mahecha put together long tours to promote socialist thinking and encourage social protest. That was the spark that set off a number of strikes, especially in Barrancabermeja. The conservative governments’ answers were always repression in favor of the foreign businessmen and even, as Urrutía points out, they recommended not giving in to the petitions of the workers. The argument was that it would destabilize the rest of the trade associations. The strikes became common and the government’s solution was the “heroic law” (Statute 69 of 1928), which prosecuted the protesters, using the argument that it would foment “the abolition or the disregard, by subversive means, of the right to property.”

The massacre of the banana workers (which happened on December 6, 1928) could be considered a result of that “heroic law”, because when the United Fruit Company workers refused to lift their strike, when they were asking the North American Company to recognize them as employees, among other benefits, the Army intervened and fired into the crowd. It was never clear how many were killed in the repressive action. The figures go from the official version of 13, to the 3,000 that Gabriel García Márquez immortalized in One Hundred Years of Solitude. What is known is that this event and other similar events of repression of trade union activity were used by Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the Liberals to garner the support of workers and return to power.

“The Liberals gave the workers some space and some voice for their claims. In addition, they accepted the trade union movement,” said Tirado Mejía, emphasizing that as one of the motives for the Liberal Party’s return to power in 1930. During the Liberal hegemony in the 20th century, protests were respected. Unions were recognized legally (Statute 83 of 1931), regulations and institutions that favored workers rights were created, and the administration favored the workers in their negotiations with employers. The synergy between Liberals and the workers and union movements permitted the foundation in 1935 of the Colombian Federation of Trade Unions (CTC in Spanish.) The majority of the unions joined the Confederation and there were debates between Liberals and those who favored socialism and communism.

In spite of the conflicts, liberalism and the trade unions moved closer, so that, in 1944, when the Army arrested President Alfonso López Pumarejo in Pasto in an attempted coup de etát, the workers and the unions came out in his defense and put it down. Nevertheless, a split in liberalism between Gabriel Turbay and Jorge Eliécer Gaitán brought the Conservatives to power and, under them, the persecution started again, as historian Tirado Mejía recounts: “When Mariano Ospina and Laureano Gómez arrived, there was a very strong attack against the trade union movement and the CTC, marked by violence.” That persecution was exacerbated in response to disturbances by the CTC after the assassination of Gaitán (El Bogotazo).

On the other hand, after the Catholic Church came to promote an alternative to trade unions, apart from politics, and especially apart from “socialist ideas”,  this push led to the creation of the National Workers Union (UTC in Spanish). This new collection of unions came to be more welcome than the CTC– which the Conservatives had been trying to dissolve– because the industries in Antioquia, which were very conservative and very Catholic, supported the initiative, since it was clearly distant from “Bolshevik” ideas. After its foundation, the project distanced itself from the partisan and ideological disputes, and focused only on seeking the economic wellbeing of the trade associations that were involved. This guaranteed that there would not be any more persecution of the movement.

When Rojas Pinilla came to power, as Tirado Mejía describes, he tried to create a new labor center, imitating Peronism in Argentina. Not only the CTC but also the UTC opposed that, and they joined with students and other sectors. In May of 1957 they started having demonstrations against the dictator. With the arrival of the National Front, the unions lost part of their relevance. However, they showed signs of social mobilization with the national civic strike in 1977. On that day, the country just stopped in the big cities, especially in Bogotá; they were taken over by the protests. The state of siege invoked by Alfonso López Michelsen in days before made no difference. In spite of the fact that the trade unions tried, a mobilization of those proportions never happened again.

In contrast, the labor movement started to gain some say in the administration. In 1968 it already had a Minister of Communications (Antonio Díaz). Between 1985 and 2000 there were four Ministers of Labor: Jorge Carrillo, Orlando Obregón, Angelino Garzón, and Luis Eduardo Garzón. There had also been members of Congress who had come out of the labor movement and, in the constitutional convention of 1991, leaders out of the labor movement such as Aída Avella, Abel Rodríguez, Angelino Garzón himself, and Tulio Cuevas took part. The impact on the Magna Carta, as emphasized by León Valencia in his research, The murder of the labor movement, was an “outstanding presence of the union movement and leftist sectors of the Assembly, which facilitated the introduction of a broad range of fundamental rights, including labor rights, in the new Constitution.”

However, that direct political participation came accompanied by a violent persecution against it, especially by the paramilitaries. That led Colombia to occupy first place on the list of trade unionists murdered in the world. According to Valencia, up to 2012, Colombia registered 63% of all the murders of trade unionists. This new wave of violence started in 1984, as described by Mauricio Archila, Professor at the National University and Cinep researcher, as follows: “Since the ‘80’s up to the ‘90’s there was a paramilitary impetus that went down a little in the time of Uribe”, said the academic about the activities against the trade unions. He believes that this is one of the reasons for their weakness in subsequent years.

The connections of the unions with some of the insurgent groups and the leftist ideology were arguments that were used by paramilitaries to support their anti-labor offensive. For several years, the unions in the Antioquia part of Urabá, the USO (Ecopetrol union), Fecode, among others, were targets of paramilitary violence repeatedly. That offensive centered in the banana area of Urabá and Córdoba, and in the oil drilling regions like Barrancabermeja, some of the most important economic areas in the country. Only in the 2000’s did the violence diminish, but it had hit the movement hard. So much so that, according to Archila’s statistics, the rate of union organization dropped to 4%, when it normally had been 15%.

In spite of those statistics, in recent years, the union movement has shown that is maintains the power to mobilize, so much so that it played a relevant role during the national strike of November 2019. “They are evidently very good at political and social negotiation. They were one of the sectors that had the most to say in the 21N. They maintained that leadership and have held it during the pandemic,” commented Archila, adding that they need to do everything possible to maintain that role, because “without labor union activity, democracy will be annihilated.”

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