Naked Capitalism on Union Murders


U.S. Trade Rep Office Helpfully Explains that Only 28 Trade Unionists Were Murdered in Colombia Last Year

Posted on April 23, 2015 by

By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen

I said on the last post on the TPP that there was one more thing I wanted to point out. It was ably covered by Michael McAuliff of The Huffington Post, and it reminds me of one of those famed Monty Python “letters to the editor,” written after a sketch portraying British seamen as cannibals.

Dear Sir, I am glad to hear that your studio audience disapproves of the last skit as strongly as I. As a naval officer I abhor the implication that the Royal Navy is a haven for cannibalism. It is well known that we have the problem relatively under control, and that it is the RAF who now suffer the largest casualties in this area. And what do you think the Argylls ate in Aden. Arabs? Yours etc. Captain B.J. Smethwick in a white wine sauce with shallots, mushrooms and garlic.

Here’s the context. Rich Trumka reacted an open hearing on Tuesday to the “labor standards” in prior trade agreements. “When you say, ‘Oh these are some standards, they’re better than no standards,’ we were told by by the [United States Trade Representative] general counsel that murdering a trade unionist doesn’t violate these standards, that perpetuating violence against a trade unionist doesn’t violate these agreements.” To back this up, Trumka cited a report that came out just this month in Colombia, where 105 trade unionists have been murdered since 2011, after the U.S. signed a free trade pact where improving labor standards was intended to be an important end goal.

Specifically, AFL-CIO deputy chief of staff Thea Lee said that twice, she was in meetings where killings of trade unionists in Guatemala and Honduras were brought up, and USTR said that would not be considered a violation of the labor rights chapter of the trade deal, because it was “a rule of law problem.”

So McAuliff checked with USTR about it. They said those Guatemala and Honduras cases are under CAFTA, a deal negotiated by George W. Bush with weak labor standards. So then USTR spokesman Andrew Bates was asked about Colombia, a free trade agreement Obama pushed for and signed, with a specific piece called the “Labor Action Plan” committing the country to a host of new laws (setting up a Labor Ministry, hiring inspectors, creating metrics and monitoring) to improve practices. Would continued murders of trade unionists count there?

Bates pointed to USTR data that shows killings of union organizers dropped from about 100 a year before the pact to about 28 killings a year now.

“There has been a significant decline in violence against union members and labor activists in Colombia over the time that we have been working with Colombia under the Action Plan,” Bates added. “We will continue to work with the Departments of Labor and State to make further progress in this regard.”

Emphasis mine, and you read that right, the United States is proud that, four years after they implemented a plan to improve human rights in Colombia, a trade unionist is murdered only every other week.

It probably goes without saying that the statistics they’re citing are bullshit, or at the very least free of context. So let me provide that. It’s based on this USTR report that compares two time periods. See if you can figure out the problem.

From 2001 to 2010, Colombian experts reported an average of close to 100 murders per year of union members. From 2011 to 2014, the number dropped to an average of 28.

Here’s some data from US Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP). First of all, the majority of the killings came from armed right-wing paramilitaries (thanks, U.S. counter-insurgency groups!), and as those paramilitaries have demobilized and violence has subsided generally in the country, it stands to reason that violence against unionists would drop. USLEAP points this out, while adding that “most of the violence against trade unionists is a result of the victims’ normal union activities”:

During debates about the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, pro-FTA advocates asserted that the decrease in trade-union murders from the 2002 is due to increased efforts to protect union members. A more likely explanation is that in late 2002, the Uribe government offered to negotiate a peace accord with the paramilitaries and the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the largest paramilitary group). The AUC responded by announcing a unilateral ceasefire and paramilitary murders of trade unionists began to drop significantly for several years until holding relatively steady from 2007 on, with Colombia still leading the world in number of trade unionists murdered and while other forms of violence escalated.

The numbers were falling leading up to 2011:

The number of trade unionists murdered fell from the 2002 high of 192 to 72 in 2005 to 39 in 2007 but increased back to 51 in 2010 before dropping again in 2011 to 29.

2011 was the year the plan was inaugurated. There’s been basically no movement since then; violence actually went up from 2012 to 2013. Moreover, the attacks are directed at leaders, who are a) in short supply and b) likely to discourage other workers from joining up without having to, you know, kill them. And the only reason there looks to be a big drop is that 2002 figure. Basically, USTR reached back as far as they could to cite the highest number of murders in the pre-Labor Action Plan period.

Second, the workforce in Colombia has dropped from 15 percent unionization in 1993 to 4 percent today. So there are simply less unionists left to kill.

And third, 28 murders per year keeps Colombia as the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist on Earth. That’s after four years of work and all these supposedly vaunted efforts, which have done what could only be charitably described as “next to nothing.”

Because murders are not the only labor problem in Colombia. The report from the respected Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), or National Union School, is very detailed and describes the misery of organizing workers or wanting to collectively bargain in that country. You can read it yourself in Spanish. There were 1,933 threats and acts of overt violence over those four years, including 1,337 death threats. There were all kinds of other instances of retaliation against workers who try to organize, from illegal firings to non-renewal of contracts to incalculable incidents of daily harassment. Illegal firings appear to be a fact of life in Colombia, and discrimination against workers seeking their rights “has intensified,” per the report. Also there is “no evidence that fines are being collected” by the labor inspectors hired under the Labor Action Plan. ENS assigned a failing grade on virtually every measure.

As a side note, this is why you maybe don’t grant trade preferences to a country that casually murders people trying to organize workers based on a set of “standards,” however robust. Especially when your own State Department acknowledges that the country enforcing those standards maintains a corrupt judiciary and executive branch that “limits its ability to prosecute human rights violators.” Maybe if that country wants the benefits so bad, they can commit to it through outcomes rather than a promise of dubious quality, leading to standards not met, labor inspectors not collecting or imposing fines, and human beings assassinated in the streets. But, you know, a few less than before.

Applied to the TPP, where one country, Vietnam, has only one authorized union and it’s part of the Communist Party, and where violence has been depressingly normal, the question is will barely-there improvements be cited as “great progress,” and will murders of union members be considered a violation of the labor chapter? Of course, the agreement is a secret. Bates, the USTR spokesman, came back after HuffPost publication to insist that labor chapters do cover labor-related violence. AFL-CIO noted that if that was the case, why haven’t they done anything about the 105 dead unionists in Colombia over the last four years?


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