BOGOTA — For the last half decade, Colombia’s union leaders have enjoyed the international spotlight — as a pending free trade agreement with the United States brought the country’s dismal labor record into sharp focus.
Now that the United States ratified the agreement on Wednesday, labor leaders wonder if they can still hold the world’s attention.
Despite making huge security gains over the last few years, Colombia remains the most dangerous place on the planet to be a union member. According to Colombia’s National Union School, or ENS, 63 percent of all union-related homicides in the world over the last decade took place in this Andean nation.
The issue of labor violence in Colombia was one of the main sticking points of the free trade deal, which was signed in 2006 but not ratified until this week.
“The debate around the free trade agreement helped make violence against union members an international issue,” said ENS General Director José Luciano Sanín, who added that President Juan Manuel “Santos can’t travel anywhere without being asked ‘how are the unions doing?’”
With the approval of the deal, however, labor leaders will have to work overtime to keep the world’s attention, he said.
By Colombian standards, union members are safer than they have been in 26 years. During the first nine months of the year, there were 22 union-member assassinations in Colombia. In 2010, there were 51 murders. While it’s still a global record, it’s down dramatically from 1996 and 2002, when there were 281 and 201 union-member homicides, respectively.
The violence decimated union rolls, as membership dropped from about 12 percent in the 1980s to 4 percent now, the ENS said. The United States, by comparison, has unionization rates of 12 percent, according to government statistics.
To complicate matters, very few of the crimes against labor leaders are ever investigated or solved.
Human Rights Watch recently pointed out that of the 2,886 union-member murders registered since 1986, the government’s conviction rate is less than 10 percent.
In 2007, a special unit was created in the prosecutors’ office to deal with crimes against union leaders. Since its inception, there have been 195 union-member homicides and only six convictions, Human Rights Watch said.
The prosecutor’s office did not respond to a request from The Miami Herald for information.
Concerns about labor violence and impunity led Colombia and United States authorities to sign a 37-point “Labor Action Plan” in April. Although not legally binding, the plan is supposed to be in place before the FTA is implemented. The initiative stiffens penalties on labor violations, reinforces the right to unionize and adds 95 officers to the specialized unit in the prosecutors’ office, among other reforms.
But six months after its signing, very few of the provisions have been met, Sanín said.
The government has insisted that the Labor Action Plan is a work in progress and will be fully implemented by the time the FTA comes online — in about a year. And the pace of reform is expected to pick up next month when the government creates a Ministry of Labor.
But now that the FTA has been ratified, the pressure to make those changes could “taper off,” said Thea Lee, the deputy chief of staff and international economist for the AFL-CIO, one of the United States’ largest labor organizations.
“Before the vote takes place, governments have usually been really focused on labor issues and giving a good showing,” she said. “The day after the vote, there can be fall-off in the effort and good will.”
Lee said the AFL-CIO will keep lobbying U.S. legislators to ensure the free trade agreement is not implemented until all the Colombian labor reforms are in place.
The brunt of union violence came in the 1990s as powerful right-wing paramilitary groups battled left-wing guerrillas. Union members were often accused of being guerrilla sympathizers and caught in the crossfire.
Even today, those perceptions exist. The national police recently warned that FARC and ELN guerrillas have been stepping up efforts to infiltrate strikes and labor protests.
Domingo Tovar, the secretary general of Colombia’s largest labor group, the Central Unitario de Trabajadores, said much of today’s violence can be blamed on criminal gangs linked to former paramilitary groups.
Since 2003, more than 31,000 paramilitary members have sworn off violence as part of the government’s demobilization efforts. But there are indications that many of them form the core of growing criminal bands, or bacrim, that have been fighting for the control of drug routes.
Yony Zea is the president of ADIDA, the teachers’ union in the state of Antioquia. This year, two ADIDA members have been killed and more than 196 have been threatened, he said.
It’s often difficult to tell where the threats are coming from, Zea said.
“We have to recognize that political violence against union members has dropped significantly,” he said. “But we are still getting pressure from these criminal gangs or combos, and it’s hard to figure out what their ideology is — if any.”