COLOMBIA REFLECTION: What it means to be a union member in Colombia and Chicago

CPTnet
26 July 2013
COLOMBIA REFLECTION: What it means to be a union member in Colombia and Chicago

by Ruth Fast

[Note: Fast was a member of the most recent Christian Peacemaker Team delegation to Colombia in May.]

 DSC_5484b
 William Mendoza speaks to CPT Colombia
delegation while CPT Colombia team member
translates.

Eleven years ago, company thugs attempted to kidnap William Mendoza’s four-year-old daughter. They were unable to take her because his wife simply refused to release her grip on the child.  This incident caused William’s marriage to break up because of his wife’s fear of further violence. His story is one of thousands that, when combined, have for decades put Colombia at the top of the list of most dangerous nations to be a member of a trade union.

Mendoza is President of the local Coca Cola ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) in Barrancabermeja, Colombia.  Because he was working for fair wages and decent working conditions for Coca Cola workers, paramilitary groups hired by the company to intimidate and threaten leaders of the union had targeted him.  This U.S. company operating in Colombia is keeping wages and benefits low so they can extract more profits for the company and we can drink soft drinks at lower prices.  

Paramilitaries have killed, disappeared, or threatened Mendoza’s colleagues because of their work.  At present, William has a bodyguard supplied by the Colombian government because of threats on his life.  His union office has bulletproof windows, and security cameras monitor the front of the building.  Sometimes William wonders how useful the bodyguard would be in a real threat to his safety. However, dismissing the bodyguard would probably invite a lethal attack.

Mendoza is working to save his own life, but the fight to save the union and affirm the right of workers to organize is the passion that has driven him to this point.  He clearly understands the contradictory predicament: that the harder he fights for workers’ rights and safety, the more he endangers his own life—yet he fights. 

I thought about my own union membership and the Chicago Teachers’ Union struggle as it continues to work for just wages, fair working conditions and the living out of “Children First”: the motto of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).  This struggle continues in spite of the CPS administration making the lives of teachers and staff in the neighborhood increasingly difficult by creating larger classes, more crowded schools, more work for teachers at the same pay rate, well as disrupting communities by closing schools.  

My union friends, union leaders, and I do not face death threats here in the U.S.  However, we are fired, laid off, and told we are lying about workers’ hardships; our pension plan is not secure and we suffer financial hardship. 

As a retired CPS school social worker, I sit in my comfortable home, insulated from the struggles my union leaders, the teachers, and school staff live daily.  I could forget William and the agony he lives daily with continued threats on his life and the lives of his comrades in the union.  But this experience in Colombia has strengthen my union commitment and gives me more energy to stand with my union for the benefit of Chicago students, their parents and for the rights of all children to a quality public education.

ILWU leaders and members understand that to fight for the rights of workers in Colombia is to fight for the rights of all workers internationally. I came back to the U.S. with my union commitment strengthened as I saw lives threatened in the Colombia.  I know that fighting for our union rights in the Chicago also strengthens the union movement internationally. 

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