Victory for trade unions and students at Colombia’s National University strike

Trade unions and student organisations have celebrated a victory at Colombia’s largest higher education public institution, the National University (UNAL) in Bogota, after university authorities reversed the previous appointment of a new rector which had provoked major protests and a strike by workers and students.

It followed the highly contentious election of a new rector on 21 March, when the university’s Supreme Electoral Council, an unelected body, named José Peña to the post even though he had received only eight per cent of votes. By contrast, another candidate, Leopoldo Múnera, gained 34 per cent of votes, making him the clear preference among those eligible to vote – students, university employees and graduates.

In response to the decision, the two main trade unions representing UNAL workers, the ASPU academics union and the SINTRAUNAL union for public university employees, launched industrial action in which they were joined by student groups. This saw pickets and the closure of classes at the UNAL, with accusations of heavy-handed police treatment towards protesters.

The protest movement demanded that the vote of the university community be respected and that Mr Múnera be appointed as rector. Unions claimed that the council decision to name Mr Peña in the post was an anti-democratic decision made for political ends that played into the hands of conservative interests, with particular concerns over the potential commercialisation of education. On 15 May, the government intervened to order UNAL authorities to name an interim rector, after Mr Peña had sought to install himself without having conducted necessary procedures.

Finally, on 6 June, after more than two months of protests, the council performed an about-turn and appointed Mr Múnera as UNAL rector, a position he will hold for the next four years. The decision was celebrated on the picket line, where trade unionists and students had established an ongoing presence on university premises.

The industrial action by ASPU and SINTRAUNAL receive support from a number of British and Irish trade unions. UCU sent a letter to Colombia’s education ministry expressing its concern over democratic processes at the UNAL, while ASLEF presented a solidarity plaque to SINTRAUNAL activist and professor Pacho Toloza during his speech at the union’s annual conference in May. Other trade unionists also made statements of support at JFC-organised events in Britain and Ireland. JFC also wrote to the university electoral council to call for the democratic will of voters to be upheld.

After the successful campaign, unions and students hope that the UNAL will prioritise the needs of all those who work and study there over those of exterior financial interests.