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University sector union leaders in Cali gave Canada’s public sector union leaders a taste of Colombian collective bargaining reality when they met on July 20 as part of their ongoing tour of Colombia: free collective bargaining is non-existent on campuses.

SINTRAUNICOL president Carlos Gonzalez told leaders of the countless challenges university workers face. Near the top of the list was the distressing absence of collective bargaining rights. Employers simply ignore their proposals.

At the top of the list is personal safety. About 100 university labour activists have been murdered in the past six years, Gonzalez said. His members are routinely arrested for demonstrating on university campuses. And the privatization threat is everywhere.

Gonzalez attended CUPE’s national convention in Toronto in October 2007 to inform delegates of the ongoing repression that is occurring under Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

As the Canadian group has been told repeatedly this week, state repression and attacks on trade unions has increased and there is probably more to come as Uribe tries to hold onto power after his term ends. There is a war on trade union rights and it takes the form of systematic harassment and death threats.

In briefing sessions this week with NOMADESC, a non-governmental organization supported by CUPE and the British Colombia Government Employees’ Union, a NUPGE affiliate, and at the National Labour School, leaders heard about another way the government is trying to eliminate unions. Under Uribe, worker cooperatives, some 12,000 of them, are taking over public sector jobs. But the term ‘cooperative’ is misleading.

These organizations provide no protection to workers and severely undermine any hope of restoring a collective bargaining process in Colombia. They are cooperative only in the sense that they cooperate with employers and the government to destroy fairness in the workplace and any dream of earning a living wage. One of the results is that there are far fewer collective agreements than in 2002 when Uribe came to power.

The Canadian leaders also got a lesson in the importance of a simple gesture of international labour solidarity. The university unionists thanked CUPE for writing a letter about some arrests from last April in Cali.

A SINTRAUNICOL member, Jose Milciades Sanchez Ortiz, was arrested for filming police violence during a student demonstration at the University of Valle. The police anti-riot squad assaulted him, shot him in the arm with a tear gas canister, threatened him with arrest and destroyed the video camera along with the evidence he had been filming. When he went to the police station, he saw the CUPE letter on a desk. He credits it with helping him avoid the trumped up charges he was facing.


The Canadian union leaders are Denis Lemelin, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and George Heyman, international vice-president of the National Union of Public and General Employees.

The group continues its tour of Colombia this week with more meetings and visits to examine human and labour rights, working conditions, and exchange views on free trade and the absence of human and labour rights guarantees. They plan to meet with the outgoing Canadian ambassador, government officials and members of the opposition. They will also discuss privatization and other problems with public sector trade unionists.

The leaders return to Canada on July 25.