Violence against Unions or Just Violence in General?

Yesterday in the Washington Post, AFL-CIO’s president John Sweeney rhetorically asked “How many murders are ‘acceptable’?” regarding the union killings that have been used as argument by Congressional Democrats to delay indefinitely a vote on the FTA with Colombia. “I can’t answer… with a number other than zero,” stated Sweeney.

That’s good posturing. Sweeney presents these killings—which have dropped by nearly 90 percent since President Alvaro Uribe took office—as a clear sign of violence against union activity in Colombia. However, the evidence shows otherwise.

In an op-ed last Friday in the Boston Globe, Edward Schumacher-Matos, a visiting professor for Latin American studies at Harvard University, writes that:

The number of convictions now being won in the union’s own cases reveals that perhaps one-fifth, and almost certainly less than half, of the killings had to do with unionism.

Of convictions won in 87 cases since the first one in 2001, almost all for murder, the ruling judges found that union activity was the motive in only 17, according to the attorney general’s office. The judges found 15 of the cases had to do with common crime, 10 with passion, and 13 with being guerrilla members [emphasis added. No motive was established in 16 of the cases.

The unions don’t dispute the judicial findings, and deep in their reports say that they, in fact, have no idea of suspect or motive in 79 percent of their cases going back to 1986. The killings, in other words, are isolated and not part of a campaign against unionizing.

As we can see, far from being a targeted campaign against union activity, the killings of union members in Colombia are mostly part of that country’s sad history of regular violence, which also affects teachers, politicians, journalists, etc.

It’s time to get the facts straight in this debate.