Laura Woodard ’13 began her presentation, “Fighting for Workers Rights and Your Life: Human Rights Violations Against Labor Unionists in Columbia,” with grim statistics on the state of recent human rights violations in the country. In the statistic of murdered trade unionists, three of five are Colombian. Woodard unveiled her thesis which plans to explore how Plan Colombia, multi-national corporations, and silence from the Colombian government are all contributing factors in the violence against labor unionists within the Colombian borders.
The first development of labor unions in Colombia came in 1857 with the founding of the Bogota Artisan Society. With intermittent lapses in union fervor between the later 19th century and into the 20th, the union movement in Colombia has stayed consistently strong since the 1980s. Resulting from this struggle for workers’ rights have been violent clashes between workers and management, especially in the coffee, banana, and oil industries.
According to Woodard’s sources, “the shift from the international community moved down to Central America, opening the door for foreign investors and the focus of United States military aid.” The United States’ Plan Columbia – an expansion on counter insurgency – formed between 1998 and 1999, added to the United States backing of paramilitary organizations in an effort to curb drug production during the Clinton years. Woodard argues that because labor unionists are connected with leftist groups who are also connected with groups responsible for the production of drugs, the United States’ Plan Colombia is responsible for violence against labor unionists as it systematically targets the left to counter drug production. Even so, there have been few improvements to the “war on drugs” and a subsequent increase in crime and corruption.
Additionally, multinational corporations contribute to these human rights violations and Woodard used two examples, Drummond Coal Company out of Birmingham, Alabama, and the Coca-Cola Corporation of Atlanta, Georgia. Drummond outsources to Columbia, and has been marked for its mistreatment of workers, sending threats to unionists, and administrating lie detector tests asking simply, “Do you support the guerillas?” Reportedly, there are many paramilitary sympathizers in higher ranks of Drummond. Union leaders have been reported missing and killed and the only U.S. response has been ones of detached complacency: these incidents have been reported, and are not systematic.
With the infamous human rights record of Coca-Cola, it is known that several of their workers have been targeted and killed or gone missing. Woodard quoted an anonymous Colombian Coca-Cola worker saying, “Everyone knows Coke works with the paramilitaries.” Woodard studied some of the hundreds of interviews and testimonies of people who have been threatened or know people who have gone missing within the Coca-Cola Corporation in Colombia.
Woodard explored also how the Colombian government opposes labor unions and why. Austerity measures to cut public sector jobs have added heightened pressure to the already tense relationship between the government and the unions. Several labor union leaders within Colombia who have written to the government report a common response that associating with strikes and protests is “violent” and no unionist is targeted that is not “violent.” This mismanagement of the word “violent” by the Colombian troubled Woodard and seemed an important aspect of her research. The silence by the Colombian government contributes to how difficult it is to find justice and protection for victims of human rights violations within the labor union movement.
Woodard carefully introduces counterarguments to her thesis and offers caveats in order to strengthen her position. Mejia and Uribe write from an economic standpoint that there is no proof of a systematic or targeted attempt to suppress labor unionists, that any deaths or violent clashes are just results of a generally violent Colombian culture. Woodard is quick to point out that one of the co-authors, Uribe, shares the last name of the former Colombian president and most likely experienced privilege and protection in the high ranks of the government.
Woodard also explores the United States’ “Colombia’s Union Activity: Myths vs. Facts.” The source states that the idea of Plan Colombia supporting paramilitary groups is a myth, while Plan Colombia funding national military groups is fact. Woodard pointed to her previous points about the cross-associations of leftist guerillas, paramilitary, and governmental groups in the very complicated Colombian issue to express that while the United States’ government might not explicitly state they are funding the paramilitary, partnerships and associations between the national military and paramilitary groups with backing from the United States do result in violations of human rights toward the labor movement. By citing a violent culture in Colombia, the United States can deny their responsibility in contributing to a culture of impunity.
Toward the end of the presentation, Professor of Political Science Dr. Cathy Scott asked why focus on Plan Colombia and not the United States Government? Woodard responded, “I only have 25 pages!” For the purpose of project length, focusing specifically on Plan Colombia fits research constraints, but Woodard is interested in exploring further and expanding her research in the future.
Way to go Laura!