Interview with Javier Correa, President of the National Union of Food Industry Workers of Colombia

On September 16, there was a massive general strike of Colombian workers and peasants. Below is an interview with Javier Correa, president of the National Union of Food Industry Workers of Columbia (SINALTRAINAL), while he was on a speaking tour of Europe. He is appealing for the solidarity of workers and youth in other countries with his union’s struggle against the Colombian government’s brutal campaign of repression and to seek justice for the murders of trade unionists in the company in which he works: Coca Cola. (Interview by the Asturian supporters of El Militante in Spain, September 26, 2002). The original Spanish text is available at: Entrevista a Javier Correa, presidente del Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Agroalimentaria de Colombia

On September 16, there was a massive general strike of Colombian workers and peasants. Below is an interview with Javier Correa, president of the National Union of Food Industry Workers of Columbia (SINALTRAINAL), while he was on a speaking tour of Europe. He is appealing for the solidarity of workers and youth in other countries with his union's struggle against the Colombian government's brutal campaign of repression and to seek justice for the murders of trade unionists in the company in which he works: Coca Cola.

EM: Describe the current situation in Colombia.

Javier Correa: At the moment, not only trade unionists but all those wishing to organise themselves are experiencing a genocidal campaign of repression, whether they be peasants, blacks, indigenous peoples, human rights activists or co-operative organisations etc. There have been 23,400 assassinations and 3,600 trade union leaders have been killed since the CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores) trade union federation was created. Last year 188 trade unionists were killed and this year there have been 110 such murders. 2,500 people are missing and more than 2,700,000 people have been forced to leave their homes, as military operations have effected all regions of the country. The current government, which has an extreme right-wing and almost fascist character, is reforming pensions, the social security and tax systems and is looking to install a strong bipartisan system (to make sure that the two parties that represent the interests of the ruling oligarchy, the conservatives and the liberals, continue to share power). All the recent measures taken by the government point to an escalation in the war against the guerrilla movements. It has a systematic policy of destroying all labour organisations in order to eliminate all opposition to globalisation and the introduction of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in 2005, behind which stand the large multinational corporations.

EM: As a trade unionist and worker at Coca Cola, you are suffering from these conditions more directly and are currently trying to raise international awareness of this situation.

JC: Coca Cola is one of the most reactionary and repressive companies in Colombia. They have already had 8 of our comrades killed, 4 of them whilst we were negotiating a collective agreement. Sixty-eight of us have received death threats and the company is using kidnapping and extortion to force workers not to sign work contracts and weaken the union. They have burned down our meeting rooms and the paramilitaries have been allowed into the bottling plants by management to force workers to leave the union. Workers' families have also been the victims of the same type of harassment. The abduction of Union leaders' children, harassment and persecution are being increasingly used as methods to force us to give up the struggle, our jobs and even leave the regions where we live. President Uribe is encouraging the paramilitaries to become the covert auxiliaries of the state in its terrorist campaign against union activists. Its plans to create voluntary militias of thousands of civilians to fight against the guerrillas are aimed at legalising the paramilitary organisations and to use them both against the guerrillas and any other movement of the masses. Coca Cola clearly benefits directly from this bloody and murderous scheme. Government repression has reduced membership of our union by 50% in the last seven years. Thanks to union weakness, Coca Cola has been able to outsource 83% of the workforce. These outsourced workers are neither covered by collective bargaining agreements nor by most labour legislation. We have reported this situation to the Colombian authorities, but clearly the judges eat from the same trough as the politicians. Given this situation, we have been forced to find other organisations and other mechanisms capable of forcing Coca Cola to answer for its crimes. We are seeking redress in the United States and have filed a lawsuit against Coca Cola in the city of its head office, Atlanta. We have also launched a permanent national and international campaign which has already won the support of 165 organisations in Colombia and other countries. We are demanding that the company compensates its workforce not only for loss of pay and other material benefits but also for all the damage that it has done to the social fabric of society. The organisations that have signed up to this campaign approved a plan of action which has involved an international boycott of Coca-Cola products since July 22 of this year. We are currently working with a number of European organisations in order to launch a second lawsuit in co-operation with the European Parliament in Brussels on October 10. We hope that the people and organisations taking part support this plan of action so that we can break the news blackout on the situation in Colombia, gain more support for our struggle, increase awareness of the issues and the level of co-ordination with other organisations as well obtain permanent international political support for the trade unions and workers of Coca Cola so that they can defend themselves properly against these attacks. This should be the first step in the fightback against the violence perpetrated by the multinationals the whole world over. The aim is to make people understand that something must be done about this genocide and to show that there are organisations and individuals in Colombia prepared to fight back. We also want to show that we have self-respect, that there is an alternative to what the Colombian state and the United States have imposed on us over the years, that we are fighting against poverty and destitution, that we do not accept a military solution to the present armed conflict and that we are for a peaceful, negotiated solution to the social and political causes behind the formation of the various guerrilla movements.

EM: Please describe to us the situation leading up to the general strike of September 16 and the mood in the labour movement afterwards.

JC: In reaction to the state of emergency declared by the government (which is being used by the latter to suspend a number of laws and constitutional rights, thus limiting the capacity to fight back against its decrees), the Colombian trade unions and other mass organisations declared a national general strike on September 16. The government declared this strike illegal, despite the United Nations stating that there were no grounds for prohibiting it. The authorities responded to the movement by deporting a number of foreign aid workers: 2 comrades from Asturias in Spain, and others from Belgium, Italy and from elsewhere. They did not want any witnesses to the genocide that they have been carrying out. Following the strike, 20 students disappeared, 5 peasants were killed in Barranquilla and even the water supply was poisoned in some peasant villages. They are now threatening to suspend the wages of those who took part in the strike as well as to take measures against workers and trade unionists. However, the Unified Strike Committee has declared that if the government carries out one single repressive measure it would declare an indefinite strike. Given the current circumstances, a National Trade Union and Peasant meeting has been called and since the government, instead of sitting down to negotiate with the Unified Strike Committee, is actually increasing the repression against the population, we are now considering calling an indefinite general strike. Nevertheless, one of the most significant facts to come out from the strike was that although the government tried to frighten the movement by declaring that any form of protest would be considered illegal, the workers' and peasants' organisations were able to defeat this measure by rallying more than a million people in a mass demonstration. Now, more than ever, we must unite to defeat this fascist government. This must be the main objective. Any other outcome would not be favourable for the population as it is clear that the two governing parties do not want to implement the economic reforms required to improve the living standards of the majority of the population. Our union is currently facing a high level of repression from this fascist government as it tries to build a social and political movement that is wide-ranging enough to represent all those sections of society ready to go all the way to implement democratic reform in Colombia. We are also convinced that the current neo-liberal globalisation process and the FTAA offer nothing positive for the vast majority of the population and therefore must be stopped. Our alternative is a democratic model of development. Support and aid from abroad are essential to break the blockade that the government has imposed on the mass organisations in Colombia and stop them from being attacked, as the government clearly would like to completely liquidate the labour movement in Colombia. One of our demands is that international solidarity break the news blackout on the situation here and help to lift the state of siege that the population is under. We also want all humanitarian aid to Colombia to go to the workers' and peasants' organisations and not to the government, which is only using it to intensify its murderous campaign against the population.

EM: There has recently been a huge upsurge in struggle in Latin America. Do you agree that it is necessary to build a political alternative able to overthrow the bourgeois governments and to carry out the transformation of society in Colombia as well as in the rest of Latin America?

JC: We must bring together all these labour movement struggles in Latin America, and in the rest of the world, and unite them with the struggle against globalisation and the creation of the FTAA in 2005. The United States intends to use the FTAA to boost its competitiveness by transforming the whole of Latin America into a huge sweatshop producing cheap products for American industry. The unions and other mass organisations are the main stumbling block to these plans. Our conception of a transformation of society is to build a wide-ranging political and social movement prepared to go the whole way in its opposition to the government and in the fight for democratic reforms, as it is no use opposing one specific attack on labour or pension rights whilst the economic fundamentals remain untouched and continue to benefit the multinationals and US imperialism. The workers and peasants' movement must therefore be linked up to all sections of the masses and this struggle must then be combined with the general movement against globalisation.

September 26, 2002

The original Spanish text is available at: Entrevista a Javier Correa, presidente del Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Agroalimentaria de Colombia