Cane Cutters Win Strike Victory in Colombia


18,000 Colombian sugar cane workers have ended a 56-day strike after sugar mills employing 75% of the workers agreed to some major demands of their new union SINALCORTEROS. The remaining employers are expected to sign on to the pattern agreement that includes a 15% wage increase, a limitation on excessive hours of work, paid sick leave and employer contributions to housing, education, and social security.

The striking workers were unable to win the demand that would compel the employers to provide direct employment contracts. Therefore the system of phony workers’ “cooperatives” that under Colombia law permit employers to evade legal responsibility for collective bargaining and providing health and pension benefits continues. However the strike did compel sugar mill operators into de facto collective bargaining with SINALCORTEROS. By agreeing to pay into the national employee health and retirement system, the owners in effect are recognizing the employee status of the cane cutters. During the strike the union increased its voluntary membership from 900 to more than 3000 members, making it one of the largest private sector unions in Colombia.

International solidarity played a major role by forcing the Uribé government to back down from its initial stance of labeling the strike “guerrilla inspired.” It is also likely that the Uribé government restrained paramilitary attacks on the strikers because of its ongoing campaign to win U.S. Congressional ratification of the Free Trade Agreement. Sugar production in Colombia is increasingly dedicated to producing ethanol for the U.S. market.

Support Striking Sugar Workers in Colombia

Eighteen thousand sugar cane workers in the Colombian Departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca have been on strike since September 15 against working conditions that amount to semi-slavery. The sugar workers, the majority of whom are Afro-Colombians, are rejecting the so-called “worker cooperatives” under which they are defined as individually self-employed workers. As “cooperativists” the workers enjoy the privilege of working 14 or more hours a day, seven days a week, while paying for their own health insurance and other benefits. They suffer from pesticide contamination and repetitive strain injuries, and must work until they drop without drawing a pension. The mills and plantations are controlled by the Sugar Cane Growers Association (ASOCAÑA).The sugar mills increasingly produce ethanol for bio-fuels, which if the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement would be ratified, would be destined for the USA.
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Flowers for Mom,Yes! Colombia Free Trade Agreement, No!

If you bought your Mom flowers for Mothers Day, chances are that they arrived on one of the 28 daily cargo flights into Miami from Colombia, where over 100,000 mainly female workers pick and process flowers for the U.S. market. They earn a minimal wage, are exposed to numerous toxins from pesticides and fungicides, and are systematically denied any right to representation by a union. Lobbyists representing big business and the Colombian and USA governments are using the slogan “Better Roses than Cocaine” to argue for the passage of the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement. Every genuine union trying to represent flower workers in Colombia opposes this attempt to further exploit them in the interests of Dole and other major corporate interests.
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Bush Tries Again to Pass Free Trade Agreement with Colombia

To date the united and unrelenting critique of the Colombian and American labor movements of the systematic violations of union rights in Colombia has deterred the Bush administration from introducing legislation to ratify and implement the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Act (née Free Trade Agreement). Now it is trying to use national security arguments to woo recalcitrant Democrats. By echoing Bush’s uncritical support for Colombia’s military attack on a FARC camp in Ecuador, Clinton and Obama appear naive and vulnerable to this duplicitous approach.

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Defeat the U.S.- Colombia Free Trade Agreement!

by Paul Garver

The impending legislative battle over implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement provides an unsual opportunity to defeat the pro-corporate “free trade” agenda while promoting the rights of Colombian and American workers.

On 17thJanuary U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab spoke to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, promising that the Bush Administration would make passing the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) its top trade priority for 2008.

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