Colombian union leader builds opposition to free trade deal


Edgar Paez considers himself fortunate to be able to campaign across the United States this month against the proposed U.S.-Colombia free trade deal. Twenty-two members of his union – assassinated for their activism – weren’t so lucky.

Employees of Coca-Cola, Nestle and other multinational corporations, “they were killed because they were fighting for workers to be paid better – and that would have resulted in the companies not making as much profit,” he said.

Colombian unions reach out
by Lauretta T. Dawolo, KFAI
United Steelworkers, the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition and Witness for Peace-Upper Midwest recently sponsored a series of forums throughout Minnesota to discuss Colombia labor union assassinations and the implications that unfair trade policies would have between the United States and Colombia.
Listen to the interview here.

Paez, a leader of Sinaltrainal, the National Food Industry Workers Union, spoke in Minneapolis and Rochester last week in programs sponsored by the United Steelworkers, Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition and Witness for Peace. He is touring the country before an upcoming Congressional vote on the free trade agreement with Colombia.

Under pressure, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe agreed to insert some pro-labor provisions into the trade pact’s text. But unions and lawmakers say they’re not good enough to overcome Colombia’s notorious track record of more than 2,000 unionists murdered by Right Wing paramilitaries – some paid off by U.S. multinationals – over the last 15 years, or Uribe’s lack of prosecution of perpetrators.

Opponents, which include the labor movement in the United States and all three labor federations in Colombia, said the agreement also would continue the failed policies of NAFTA that have led to massive job loss and lower wages throughout the Americas.

Since 1991, a total of 2,283 Colombian trade unionists have been murdered and many more have been subject to violence and death threats, according to the International Labor Organization.

Not only workers, but also students, farmers, indigenous communities and many others have been subject to violence, Paez said. The Uribe administration often uses the war on drugs as an excuse, but in fact has been heavily implicated in drug trafficking, he said.

“What’s happening in Colombia is the worst-case example of what happens when companies are allowed to do whatever they want,’ said Tara Widner, United Steelworkers staff representative who spoke at the programs with Paez. The Steelworkers have sued a number of multinationals for their actions in Colombia, she noted.

The union is leading efforts to oppose the U.S.-Colombia free trade deal in Congress. The Bush administration hopes to submit its proposal by March 31 under “fast track,” meaning an up-or-down vote with no amendments or changes allowed.

Paez and Widner, as well as exiled Colombian union activist Gerardo Cajamarca who also spoke at the programs, emphasized they support trade between countries – but it must include meaningful labor, environmental and human rights protections.

Earlier this month, Colombian workers conducted demonstrations in opposition to the proposal and to demand an end to state-sponsored violence. They also plan a series of tribunals in Bogota in late July to put Chiquita Brands, Drummond, Monsanto and other multinationals “on trial” for violations of human rights. Workers from other countries are invited to attend.

“Despite these atrocities, despite these crimes, the Colombian people continue to resist, to dream and to build other alternatives,” Paez told the audience in Minneapolis. “We’d like for you to help us create a different Colombia.”

For more information
Read the story of Gerardo Cajamarca, a Colombian union activist in exile and living in Minnesota

Find reports, articles and commentaries about the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement on the website of the national Citizens Trade Campaign.

For more on fair trade activities in Minnesota, contact Alicia Ranney of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition: