As the countdown begins for Congress to vote on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, debate is intensifying on both sides of the issue. On April 7 President Bush sent the agreement to Congress. Under fast track trade authority rules, Congress must vote on it within 90 days.

Colombian trade unionists have the support of their U.S. counterparts in opposing any such pact until the Colombian government acts decisively to stop wholesale killings of trade unionists and ends its attacks on union rights. Many business groups, however, are urging its passage.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) noted that as of mid March ten trade unionists had been assassinated this year in Colombia. By the end of the month two more were dead.

Harvard professor and former New York Times staffer Edward Schumacher-Matos has portrayed trade union deaths in Colombia as random, lessening, and exaggerated. (NYT, March 29) “Isolated killings do not justify holding up the [free trade] trade agreement,” he wrote, which will “stimulate economic growth and help all Colombians.”

Citing union data, Schumacher-Matos suggested that because labor unions have no “suspects or motives” in 79 percent of all murder cases, anti-union origins are unproven.
Looking at 87 convictions since 2001 “almost all for murder,” he identified an anti-union motivation in only 16; the others involved “common crime” or “crimes of passion” or “membership in a guerrilla organization.”

For judges in fear-ridden Colombia to gloss over motivation rather than appear to be defending unions is understandable. Union researchers and foreign observers concur that over 50 per cent of assassinations have occurred at times when collective bargaining, union organizing, or strikes were taking place. That’s when 70 percent of the victims who were union leaders died.

Schumacher-Matos claimed that “About a third of the identified murderers of union members are leftist guerrillas.” He invoked the International Labor Organization to reassure readers, noting that “union legal rights in Colombia meet its highest standards.” In fact, the ILO was concerned enough to open a Permanent Representation Office in Bogota last year, a step “almost unprecedented” in 80 years of ILO history, according to Kenneth Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC).

Schumacher-Matos cited 40 convictions last year for murder of labor activists as evidence of waning impunity. But that assertion is at odds with data supplied from a 157- page report published in 2007 by Colombia’s largest labor federation, the United Labor Central (CUT). Its report had been prepared in advance of a high profile ILO visit.

CUT’s analysis inspires confidence because its data was matched with information from prosecutors’ records, provided by the Colombia Commission of Jurists. Researchers at the National Union School reached similar conclusions.

The report indicates that at least 2,534 union activists, and probably more, were assassinated over 21 years ending Aug. 7, 2007. Twenty percent of them were union leaders, 51 percent died in Antioquia department. The total includes 421 killed during President Alvaro Uribe’s five year tenure.

Schumacher-Matos takes comfort that killings have dropped from 275 in 1996, to 72 in 2006, to 40 in 2007. Over 1,300 unionists were forcibly displaced and 185 disappeared during 21 years. Arbitrary detentions have increased since 2002.

According to the report, prosecutors have ignored 69 percent of perpetrators. Of 845 suspects “registered” with prosecutors, only 14 percent have reached the “trial stage,” most of them advancing no further than being investigated.

During the Uribe era, prosecutors registered only 125 alleged assassins, bringing 59 to trial. Courts have convicted 45 defendants for killing unionists since 2001, five during 2007.

The findings square with conclusions from reports by Amnesty International in 2007 and recently the Canadian Labour Congress. They place the number of anti-union murderers escaping prosecution altogether at 90 percent and those convicted at three percent.

Following the U.S. lead, Canada’s current right wing government is proposing to sign a so-called free trade treaty with Colombia. In a letter March 28 to the government’s trade and labor ministers, Kenneth Georgetti quoted a union colleague: “They are not just murdering union leaders. They are murdering the unions.” He said that during the Uribe presidency conditions have worsened, “public relations statements notwithstanding.”

According to the Canadian Association of Labor Lawyers, “The ability of workers to protect their rights and livelihood has been seriously diminished by the advent of regional preferential trade agreements.”