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Venezuela and Labor

The biggest obstacle to the attempt first by the Bush Administration, and now by the Obama Administration, to achieve passage of the long-stalled Free Trade Agreement with Colombia is that country’s long-standing shameful reality as “the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists,” to use the words of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the largest union confederation in the world, representing 176 million workers in 156 countries and territories.

Since 1986, over 2800 unionists have been assassinated in Colombia. The clear and ever-present danger to organized labor in Colombia is the most salient and undeniable fact about the U.S.’ favorite nation in the region.

Incredibly, it appears that adherents of the FTA may have commenced an effort to smear Venezuela with the same “danger to labor” brush in order to advance the prospects of the Colombia agreement by using bare statistics without elaboration or explanation to suggest that Colombia is no different. Nothing could be further from the truth.

According to the ITUC’s 2010 Annual Survey, of the 101 unionists assassinated in the world last year (2009), 48 (almost half) were Colombian. And, a recent, July 8, 2010 press release from the AFL-CI0 indicates that another 29 Colombian unionists were assassinated in the first half of 2010.

It is well-known that the assassination of unionists in Colombia is largely carried out by right-wing paramilitary groups linked to the Colombian government or by Colombian security forces themselves. Indeed, according to a 2007 report by Amnesty International on Colombia, “around 49 percent of human rights abuses against trade unionists were committed by paramilitaries [themselves linked to the Colombian state] and some 43 percent directly by the security forces.” And, the Colombian government up to its highest reaches, including President Alvaro Uribe himself, regularly (and quite falsely) stigmatizes unionists as “guerillas,” thereby knowingly setting up union leaders for paramilitary murder. Indeed, when I personally met with President Uribe as part of an AFL-CIO delegation in February 2008 at the Presidential Palace in Bogota and confronted him about this stigmatization, his proffered “defense” was that, when he was a student (presumably decades ago) his experience was that union leaders, student leaders and members of the press were in fact “guerillas.” In other words, in trying to fend off the claims that he stigmatized trade unionists, he merely repeated the stigmatization.

In light of all of this, the ITUC concluded in its 2010 Annual Survey that “[t]he historical and structural violence against the Colombian trade union movement remains firmly in place, manifesting itself in the form of systematic human and trade union rights violations. On average, men and women trade unionists in Colombia have been killed at the rate of one every three days over the last 23 years.”

This conclusion is in stark contrast to its conclusion about what is happening in Venezuela. Thus, while hardly uncritical of the situation confronting unionists in Venezuela, the ITUC, in its 2010 Annual Survey, concluded nonetheless that “[v]iolence linked to the fight for jobs continued to be the main reason behind the killing of trade unionists.” The ITUC explains this phenomenon in more detail in its 2009 Annual Survey. There, it states that “[a] delicate issue for the labour world in Venezuela is the persistent disputes over the right to work, which have cost the lives of at least 19 trade unionists and 10 other workers . . . . The situation is particularly acute in the construction and oil industries, where various interest groups and mafias have clashed over the negotiation and sale of jobs, which is affecting trade union activity per se.” The 2009 report goes on to note that “there has been a fall in the number of murders to the fight over jobs in comparison with the previous year (from 48 to 29 for the period from October 2007 to September 2008….”

In other words, the ITUC, which is recognized as the foremost authority on anti-union violence, views the killings of unionists in Colombia and Venezuela very differently – with the violence against unionists in Colombia being “structural” and “systematic,” almost invariably with government sanction; and the violence in Venezuela, on the other hand, stemming from mafia-like corruption largely within the union movement itself. This is a distinction with a huge difference. As the ITUC itself reported in 2008, the trade union movement in Colombia has been brought to the point of near extinction by violence specifically designed to wipe out the union movement as a whole, with only 4% of workers represented by unions; while in Venezuela, approximately 11% of workers are represented by unions – just under the rate of unionization in theUnited States (12.3%).

Now enters Juan Forero in the Washington Post (and in a condensed piece for NPR), who, in a very misleading and many times self-contradictory story, is claiming that Venezuela should now be considered “the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists,” pushing Colombia out of the number one spot. This piece, which is getting a lot of attention, could not be better timed as far as policy-makers in the U.S. and Colombia are concerned. Thus, it came out just as Obama has announced a renewed interest in the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (despite his campaign pledge to oppose it based upon trade union considerations) as well as the recent attempt by Colombia to censure Venezuela at the OAS for allegedly harboring FARC guerillas on its territory.

In his July 15, 2010 Washington Post piece entitled, “Venezuelan union clashes are on the rise as Chavez fosters new unions at odds with older ones,” Forero first acknowledges the fact that Venezuela considers itself “the most labor-friendly government in Latin America,” having “repeatedly increased the minimum wage, turned over the management of some nationalized companies to workers and fostered the creation of new unions.” In regard to the latter, Forero explains later in his piece that there are now “4,000 new unions, up from 1,300 in 2001” – a fact supporting Venezuela’s claim of being labor friendly.

However, the meat of Forero’s piece is to say that there is a sinister side to all of this – the killing of unionists, albeit by rival unions [as opposed to state or quazi-state forces as in the case of Colombia]. According to Forero, 75 unionists lost their lives in the past two years to such violence, 34 in the 12 months ending in May. Of course, in Colombia, 77 unionists have been killed in merely the past 1.5 years with 29 killed in the past 6 months, and this in the context of a country with much lower union density that Venezuela.

Still, Forero presses on, attempting to suggest that the killings in Venezuela are in fact politically motivated, and somehow the fault of the Chavez administration.

A close examination of Forero’s own piece, however, belies this claim. The most concrete example Forero gives of these “intra-union killings” is by way of an interview with Emilio Bastidas, a leader of the UNT, who talks of the murder of 8 union activists from the UNT in recent years. Bastidas himself is quoted in the story as saying that “We believe it is political to debilitate the UNT and cut us off from projecting ourselves.” While Forero explains that the UNT represents 80 unions, what he fails to tell the reader is that the UNT is a pro-Chavez union formed after the coup against Chavez in 2002. This is an incredible omission, for this obviously cuts against Forero’s premise that Chavez is somehow responsible for the violence. After all, why would Chavez want to interfere with the growth of a pro-Chavez labor federation?

From my own discussions with unionists in Venezuela, which I visited at the end of July and where I attended the third annual “Encuentro Sindical de Nuestra America” (Union Meeting of Our America) pro-Chavez unionists are much more often the target of the violence described in Forero’s piece than anti-Chavista unionists. As Jacobo Torres de Leon, Political Coordinator of the Fuerza Bolivariana de Trabajadores Dirrecion Nacional, responded to my questioning of him about the Forero piece, “there are no political killings like in Colombia.” Jacobo further emphasized that the unionists recently killed were his (pro-Chavez) comrades – a fact inconvenient to Forero’s well-publicized thesis. I should also note that President Chavez addressed the Union Meeting of Our America and was well received by the over 300 unionists in attendance from almost every country of the Western Hemisphere. At this meeting, Chavez called on workers to take control of the factories in which they work – good advice for us all.

There is an old saying, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” It seems an appropriate prism through which to view this most current attempt to rescue the Colombia FTA from that nation’s own continuing and indisputable status as the number 1 country in the world for anti-union killings.

DANIEL KOVALIK is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Law and Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers, AFL-CIO, where he has worked for over 17 years.

 

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Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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