Trade unions were systematically and violently targeted for decades with governments playing a major role in widespread killing that aimed to eradicate organised labour.
That is the message from Colombia’s current government, heading by President Gustavo Petro and the Historic Pact progressive coalition. It represents a radical shift in tone from previous administrations, which, according to Petro, facilitated or even encouraged shocking violence against the union movement. The president also called for reparations for those impacted and for classified archives labelling trade unionists as ‘internal enemies’ to be made public.
In March this year, the Petro government made history by formally recognising the trade union movement as a collective victim of the decades-long armed conflict. Subsequently, on 13 September, President Petro, Labour Minister Gloria Ramírez, a former trade unionist herself who in 2006 visited Britain and Ireland with Justice for Colombia, and the director of the government-run Victims’ Unit, Patricia Tobón, participated in a commemoration to acknowledge the aggression enacted against organised labour, often driven from the highest levels of government.
For over half a century, Colombian trade unionists faced barely comprehendible levels of violence. Between 2018 and 2023, trade unionists suffered 15,810 human rights violations: 3,323 murders, 449 attempted murders, 254 forced disappearances, 7,884 death threats and 1,987 forced displacements. Colombia accounted for over 60 per cent of worldwide killings of trade unionists during this entire period.
Although attacks on trade unionists have fallen since peaking in the 1990s and 2000s, Colombia remains the world’s deadliest country for organised labour, according to this year’s Global Rights Index from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
During the commemoration, Patricia Tobón called the targeting of trade unionists ‘sustained, selective and systematic’, adding that the government sought to define victims as ‘political subjects’, which opens the potential for reparative measures. Anti-union violence was effectively a policy of state, said Petro, who, although he did not name any of his predecessors directly did not hold back in his condemnation of the role of former presidents.
‘I cannot say that Videla [Argentina’s military dictator who behind the murder and disappearance of thousands] killed more than Colombia: he killed fewer,’ Petro said. ‘There, they are called dictators, [whereas] in Colombia, [they are called] presidents, but they killed more. You are going to tell me that it wasn’t the presidents who did the killing. Well, they stayed silent and allowed the lords of greed to kill workers. By omission, they permitted the killing.’ He also drew parallels between certain former leaders of Colombia and dictators Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet and Adolf Hitler.
Also participating in the event were relatives of murdered trade unionists, such as Candelaria Nuris Vergara, whose husband was disappeared on 13 May 1993. ‘We’re here to continue demanding that the state fulfil its obligations to search for victims of forced disappearance and that the Attorney General’s office genuinely investigates who ordered an end to the trade union movement in Colombia,’ she said.
The commemoration was attended by representatives of Colombia’s three trade union centres, the CUT, the CGT and the CTC. ‘This act is possible because this government has taken the decision to make effective collective reparation, strengthen the trade union movement and hopefully open the pathway for the trade union movement to grow,’ said CGT president Percy Oyala.
Colombia’s trade unions have on three previous occasions sought to gain recognition of the movement as a collective victim, in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Each time, the petitions were denied. Official recognition opens the door to establish reparative measures, as well as symbolic gestures of remembrance. It also provides the means to confront stigmatisation, increase trade union affiliation rates and end the culture of hostility towards trade unionism within business sectors.
‘With the strength of the people, I can say that the trade union movement was a victim of violence in thousands of murders due to greed and barbarism,’ Petro stated.
Unsurprisingly given his support for trade unions, proposals for labour reform and recognition of the historic injustices suffered by trade unionists, President Petro continues to receive strong backing from the union movement. This was evident on 27 September as workers and unions staged major rallies across Colombia to show support for the government.