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Delegates at CUPE’s 24th national convention in Montreal were treated to an exciting evening of speakers from around the world at the Global Justice forum.

Delegates heard about the struggle in Colombia from Mariano Jose Guerra. Guerra is the President of the Antioquia section of the Colombian trade union federation, FENALTRASE (National Federation of Public Sector Workers).

Brother Guerra has worked as a public prosecutor and is currently a lawyer for victims of violence, including people affected by landmines, forced displacement and extrajudicial assassinations. He has represented Colombian civil society at international meetings of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines for the past several years, and he has been a candidate of the Alternative Democratic Pole, a coalition of opposition parties. For his work in the labour movement and as a prosecutor of paramilitary and military cases, Brother Guerra has received numerous death threats and lives with security measures to protect his life.

FENALTRASE is a federation of state workers that includes over 80% of the state unions in Colombia with a membership of 150,000. It includes national, provincial and municipal organizations with workers from health, justice, public service, ministerial, transportation, agrarian, education, and national registry sectors.

He described the current situation in Colombia where 2% of the population own 50% of the land, there are an estimated 45,000 missing people, half the population live in poverty, and the cost of maintaining the military is about $15m a day. “Therefore we live in a fragmented society, torn apart socially, economically and politically, characterized by social inequality.”

CUPE is a strong union that is providing essential support to the struggle in Colombia. We need to share our solidarity – it is important for us to be here to build together. But it is also important for us that you press your government to not sign a trade agreement with Colombia. These agreements must guarantee the rights of working people, their lives and physical integrity.”

Also speaking at the forum was Saw Kwehsay of Issues/Peace Way Foundation, Information and Campaign Coordinator in Burma. Saw Kwehsay was born in a small Burmese village that was destroyed by the Army in 1976. “I believe in the concept of finding a solution to the conflict in Burma in a peaceful and non-violent way. I started working as the human rights information collector in my own village area and provided basic human rights training to the local villagers.“

The Issues/Peace Way Foundation promotes justice and peace and is calling for the respect of human rights. Saw Kwehsay works closely with CUSO-VSO (CUPE represents Canada based staff), documenting human rights violations and advocating peaceful change. CUSO-VSO has since become a partner organization which enables cooperation with more ethnic human rights organizations in the field of youth and women empowerment and capacity building.

You can hear more from Saw Kwehsay in our podcast interview.

Delegates also had the opportunity to hear Nomvula Julie Hadi, the Deputy Director of the South Africa Municipal Workers Union

Comrade Hadi lives in the industrial city of Port Elizabeth and works a senior clerk for the Nelson Mandela Municipality. She has been a SAMWU shop steward since 1997. She was elected as the Deputy President of SAMWU five months ago.

Before joining the municipality she worked in the auto industry and was for many years a shop steward in the metalworkers union of Congress of South African Trade Unions. She has been an activist all her adult life. At 17 she became active in the banned African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, and later the ANC Women’s League. She has also played a leading role in the South African Communist Party and has remained a part of its District leadership for many years.

She is passionate about cementing the linkages between the union and social/community movements, and has been a courageous advocate for gender equality. “I am so proud, so very proud” to see how much women contribute to the convention and are respected for it she noted. She remains deeply committed to grassroots activism and the struggle for a socialist society.

“We have had political freedom for 15 years (since independence in 1994) but we do not have economic freedom”, she told the 250 delegates at the Forum. While the new President has opened up some dialogue with unions, she noted that “the poor remain poor and the rich are getting richer,” in South Africa. Listen to the convention podcast to learn more about South Africa.