MAC: Mines and Communities

Coal Workers' Strike Faces Death Squads

Published by MAC on 2006-06-13

Coal workers' strike faces death squads

By Berta Joubert-Ceci

13th June 2006

When workers strike in Colombia, the world's most dangerous country for union leaders, they do so at great risk to their lives. Defiant unions, particularly those that represent the workers toiling in trans national corporations, are the target of the right-wing paramilitary death squads—gangsters more often than not directly hired by the companies as a weapon against labor challenges.

More frequently, paramilitaries have been reported to have ties with the Colombian government and its army. This makes the murder of unionists a national and even international affair. Ties among the U.S. government, the Colombian government, U.S. corporations and paramilitaries are clearly exposed.

U.S. President George W. Bush invited Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez to visit Washington on June 14 to discuss what a June 7 White House news release called "a range of issues including their shared commitment to advancing opportunity, security, and respect for human rights in Colombia; the importance of free trade to sustained economic growth; and continuing cooperation in areas of mutual interest."

Meanwhile, an intense labor and human-rights issue has been developing in Colombia. Some 3,500 workers represented by the union SINTRAMIENERGETICA walked out their jobs after the U.S. Drummond Coal Co. refused to negotiate the union's demands in good faith.

The most crucial union demands related to labor rights, work place safety and investment in the social network of the community. This last includes improvements in health education, housing and other basic needs for the workers and their families.

The union also asks for a pension and compensation increase for the hard work that lasts an average of 12-to-18 hours daily. Raul Sosa and Estivenson Avila, the workers' spokespersons, said,:"We do not ask for outrageous salaries. What we want is labor stability in the company. We do not want millions; we want thorough solutions." (in the website, May 19)

A major economic demand is to change the date of the yearly wage increase. The workers want the company to shift the date the increase starts from April to January so that families can better deal with general cost of living increases that start in January. Showing Drummond's intransigence on even such minor points, according to the same article, "The company has reiterated its total discord and has only communicated to the workers' negotiators that this point is not going to be negotiated now nor in 20 years."

What is Drummond Coal Co.?

Based in Birmingham, Ala., the Drummond Company is owned by Garry Neil Drummond. According to the company website, the "Drummond Co., Inc. is principally engaged in the business of min ing, purchasing, processing and selling of coal and coal derivatives. … Drum mond controls reserves totaling over 2 billion tons and shipped over 28 million tons of coal in 2004. …The international mining operations are located in Colombia, serving customers in both the U.S. and Europe."

Drummond moved to Colombia in 1994, after closing most of its mines in Alabama. There it financed railroads and the necessary infrastructure to funnel the coal out of the Mina Pribbenow open coal pit in La Loma, in the Cesar region in the Northeast, to Drummond" in the northern Caribbean coast. There, it is loaded into gigantic ships, landing as profits in the U.S. pockets of Drummond.

Reuters reported on May 24, the third day of the strike: "The mine, which produced 22 million tons of coal last year, supplies the bulk of Colombia's 55 million ton annual coal production. Coal sales represent the second-largest income from exports for Colombia, at $2.6 billion in 2005. The state receives revenue from exploration, but not from profits as the mines are owned by foreign operators."

By criminally neglecting the workers' demands, management has kept profits high through the years. Many workers have died. Others have been seriously injured due to faulty equipment and unsafe working conditions.

Workers are required to work in shifts of at least 12 hours for two full weeks alternating day and night shifts. The company increased the Caterpillar front-end loaders from 22 to 32 tons, causing extreme vibration during the machine operation and resulting in severe spinal cord injuries to the workers. Some workers were permanently disabled.

Drummond Watch, a website that monitors the company's action, reported, "The Company has fired a number of workers with spinal column injuries, and tries to evade responsibility by claiming that these injuries are not work-related."

In the year 2000, the collapse of an excavation wall buried three workers alive. The workers had warned about an unsafe cut in the wall, but the bosses disregarded their complaint and ordered them to continue working in those unsafe conditions. After the accident, although the company wanted the rest of the workers to continue laboring, workers stopped for the rest of the day in honor of their deceased comrades.

On March 12, 2001, while in negotiations to seek justice for those deaths and to improve safety conditions at the mine, Valmore Lacarno Rodríguez and Víctor Hugo Orcasita Amaya, president and vice-president of the union, were murdered. Fifteen men, some in military uniform, had stopped the company bus in which they and other workers were riding toward Valledupar, where most of the workers and their families live, about 30 miles from the mine. They forcibly removed Lacarno and Orcasita, hitting and shooting Locarno in the face right in front of his horrified co-workers. Orcasita was forced into the woods where he was later found dead, with his fingernails torn off.

Augusto Jimenez, the president of Drummond LTD in Colombia, had threatened both men earlier, saying, "El pez muere por su propia boca" (The fish dies by opening its mouth).

Though Drummond makes available secure housing and transportation for the U.S. citizens who work for the company, it had refused an urgent request by Locarno and Orcasita to have permission to stay in the mine after work to safeguard their lives after they'd been threatened by paramilitaries. The two unionists even faxed a request directly to Gary Drummond before they were murdered.

Gustavo Soler, another worker who took on the now dangerous leadership of the union, was also murdered after receiving paramilitary threats. He had also requested sanctuary in the mine after work and once again the company refused.

The Colombian government provides every protection to the company while leaving the workers to fend for themselves against the criminal paramilitaries.

An Oct. 6, 2003, article in the Wall Street Journal reported: "The company, one of the biggest foreign investors in Colombia, has built barracks for the Colombian military at La Loma and near the port. More than 300 Colombian army troops are stationed at La Loma, where Drummond provides them subsidized food and fuel. The troops protect company facilities and screen employees, Drummond says."

The legal case that the article mentions is a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama on March 14, 2002, by the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steel Workers against the Drummond Com pany on behalf of the relatives of Lacarno, Orcasita and Soler. The lawsuit charges the company with hiring armed paramilitaries to torture, kidnap and murder union leaders.

Dan Kovalik, the lawyer for the union, recently visited Rafael García, the former head of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the Colombian intelligence department of President Uribe's administration. Garcia is now in La Picota prison in Bogota, charged with removing the criminal background of drug traffickers from the files of the DAS.

García testified under oath for the lawsuit in Alabama that he was an eyewitness to a meeting where Augusto Jiménez gave money to representatives of the Self Defense Units of Colombia—AUC, the para militaries—to assassinate Lacarno and Orcasita. He also stated that he has not testified for the Colombian Justice System since they have refused to guarantee his protection if he does offer testimony. He had accused former DAS Director Jorge Noguera of links with the AUC for the development of some projects, among them "the assassination of labor leaders, a plan to destabilize the Venezuelan government, electoral fraud in favor of President Alvaro Uribe in the 2002 elections." (El Nuevo Herald, June 1)

Now paramilitaries are again threatening the strikers. There is no guarantee that the company or the state will provide the security they need. Uribe's "Democratic Security" has only proved to have been terrorist insecurity for the workers and the progressive movement that oppose his neoliberal politics.

On June 9 Leo W. Gerard, International President of the USW, sent a letter to President Uribe, with copies to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Wood, expressing concern about Drummond's demand to the Colombian government to "declare the strike of these workers illegal, thereby making it a crime, punishable by imprisonment, for the workers to continue this strike."

Gerard added, "And, we reiterate our call for the Colombian government to take all measures to protect the lives and well-being of these workers as they continue their strike activities."

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