A dangerous country for any trade unionist
Saturday 3rd October 2015
Morning Star editor Ben Chacko talks to Colombian trade unionist WITNEY CHAVEZ
TUC CONGRESS last month heard an emergency motion from train drivers’ union Aslef on continuing violence against trade unionists in Colombia.
Moving it, general secretary Mick Whelan pointed out that 69 activists were killed in the first eight months of 2015; that an academic, Miguel Beltran, has been arrested again on vague “rebellion” charges he was cleared of four years ago after spending two years behind bars; and that leading trade unionist Huber Ballesteros has now been locked up for over two years without trial.
So you might think Witney Chavez, an executive member of Colombian trade union federation the Central Union of Workers (CUT), has bigger fish to fry than the Tory assault on our right to organise over here.
Not a bit of it.
“You must fight for your right to strike,” he tells me gravely over a coffee as we meet on the sidelines of the conference.
“You lose that here and it will damage all of us, everywhere in the world.”
Unions in the CUT federation have some 600,000 members in total, around half of whom belong to FECODE, the country’s largest teaching union.
In contrast to Britain’s TUC, which unites virtually the entire labour movement, Colombia has five such federations, but CUT is the biggest, and, according to Chavez, the most class conscious and politically radical.
FECODE is Chavez’s union and for 12 years he held leading positions in it — he has been both general secretary and president, the latter being the more powerful office in Colombia.
It bears the bitter distinction of being “the most persecuted union in Colombia.” Since the early 1990s over 1,000 members have been murdered.
Why? “Because we are permanent protagonists of struggle,” Chavez says. “To speak of FECODE is to speak of protest, of opposition to government policy.
“But it is a dangerous country for any trade unionist, and teachers work right across the country, including in the most violent areas.
“The level of killing has reduced, but it is still high. In 2014, 15 leading local trade unionists were killed, seven of them teachers. That’s about half the 2012-13 figures.”
And this is the fault of the Bogota government?
“There’s a 95 per cent impunity rate for these killings. In more than nine out of 10 cases there is no sentence, no investigation that reaches a satisfactory conclusion, no answers for the families.
“Sometimes, the government will help move threatened teachers to safer areas, but in most rural parts of the country that’s not possible. At the very least the state must be considered negligent.”
Is it a state-run education sector we’re talking about, I wonder.
“Mostly. The private sector is very strong in pre-school and university, less so in primary and secondary education.
“There are maybe 350,000 teachers employed by the state and 150,000 by the private sector, but the proportion of pupils in state education is very much higher than that would suggest. Though different models are being used now to privatise state education — for example, schools being run privately but paid for by public funds.”
Sounds familiar. But is it mostly private-sector teacher trade unionists being killed, then?
“No, there’s no trade union movement in the private sector,” Chavez tells me. “People are on one-year contracts, if you joined a union you’d simply lose your job.
“It’s in the public sector that we’re organised and we fight for higher salaries and better conditions.”
Something doesn’t seem to add up to me. Why would paramilitaries murder teachers who are paid for by the government? Raising their pay wouldn’t leave any oligarch or drug baron out of pocket.
Chavez smiles at my naivety.
“Teachers in Colombia,” he explains, “especially in rural areas — well, it’s a bit like being the village priest. They are community leaders.
“If there is a problem in the village, if people are starving, if there is a local injustice, it is often the local teacher who is speaking out, leading resistance.
“There’s a line from [Catalan singer] Joan Manuel Serrat — ‘when a problem in the community arises, the teacher arrives.’ These murders are not directly related to workplace struggles.
“And they are not always political, either. Different types of violence affect trade unions in Colombia. There are issues with smuggling, there’s a huge black market, crime networks run by paramilitaries. Trade unionists can fall foul of any of that.
“Then there is the politics — teachers critical of government initiatives being killed. There’s the war [with communist guerilla group Farc] and a peace process, peace in Colombia would improve the situation enormously. It will take time.”
It sounds discouraging, but Chavez says Britain’s socialists can help.
“Support peace negotiations in Colombia. They create an environment in which we can make progress.
“The work Justice for Colombia does is essential, and I would urge more people to get involved with it and more trade unions to affiliate.
“After all we have common problems. Workers in Colombia are very worried by free-trade agreements with Europe and about entry into the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, because its recommendations before we join involve big spending cuts.
“Statements like this one [at TUC] are very important, they help put pressure on the Colombian regime, they show it that the eyes of the world are watching.”
I ask if he was listening when Jeremy Corbyn addressed Congress and mentioned the terrible situation for Colombian trade unionists.
“Yes, I was,” he says, smiling. “A wonderful speech, all of it. A speech that gives hope that the Labour Party can be a party of labour again.”
Justice for Colombia is holding an event, Human Rights and the Peace Process in Colombia, on October 7 from 5.30 to 7.30pm at the Fleming Room, Scottish Parliament EH99 1SP. For more information visit www.justiceforcolombia.org.