AN ESCALATING strike sweeping through Colombia, led by teachers and other state employees, saw at least half a million workers striking and marching on Monday and Tuesday this week.
Citizens in the Pacific Choco province have engaged in an all-out civic strike since Wednesday last week, against the national government’s broken promise to alleviate rampant state neglect, poverty, violence and corruption.
An estimated 70,000 workers marched in Choco on Tuesday, while the capital, Bogota, has filled up with tens of thousands of striking primary and secondary school teachers. The teachers have been on strike since last week to demand more pay and an increased investment in education.
In other major cities, teachers also massively took to the streets, causing a partial shut-down of traffic, not just in Bogota, but also in Medellin and Cali. As many as 330,000 teachers have taken to the streets throughout Colombia, in an accumulation of strikes.
Furthermore, workers from various other state entities, such as prison authority INPEC, Colombia’s tax agency DIAN and the national judicial workers union ASONAL, are also striking and marching in Bogota. More than half a million people demonstrated on Monday, demanding wage and work condition improvements.
The president of Colombia’s largest union, CUT, Luis Alejandro Pedraza, told Caracol Radio on Monday: ‘The general unemployment of Colombian teachers and state workers is due to the failure of the Government to invest in each of these sectors… We believe that tomorrow will paralyse some 500,000 to 600,000 people. Delegations from all over the country will come to the capital,’ Pedraza said on Monday.
INPEC’s union announced an indefinite strike beginning on Tuesday following the government’s failure to agree with requests made regarding the overcrowding of prisons and unregulated working hours. The prison guards said they wanted ‘life insurance for all INPEC employees, rules regarding the working day, since we are the only public entity that does not have a regulated working day, meaning we work up to 96 hours a week and the expansion of the prison workforce, among other points,’ said Diana Salinas, president of STC labor union.|
The accumulation of strikes and demands for public investment present the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos with a major fiscal dilemma, as the government’s claims it has no money are not just negotiation tactics. Colombia’s economic reserves have ‘vaporised’ after the collapse of commodity prices in 2014.
The drop in the price of oil, once responsible for more than half of Colombia’s export, has made serious cuts in government revenue. The government has promised public investment, but in job-creating sectors like construction and road infrastructure in an effort to prevent a rise in unemployment.
However, this has left the government with no budget to fulfill previous promises made with, for example, Choco and the teachers. After days of strikes, the stand-off between the government and education unions over funding remains unresolved. The education system in Colombia has been subject to several budget cuts since 2016, making the provision of quality education impossible, according to FECODE, an affiliate of Education International (EI).
In a press release, FECODE declared that educators are supporting the strike in huge numbers in response to the cuts in the financing of education. FECODE also says that parents and the school communities are taking part by the thousands in the protest actions.
The cuts in funding have damaged and will continue to worsen the teaching and learning conditions in schools as immediate consequences, the union warns. Infrastructure and teachers’ salaries, in particular, will suffer from the measures, it says. The nationwide strike has received the support of the union’s regional heads.
In a joint letter, they underline the need for adequate funding to ensure access to quality education for all. They also highlight the fact that, without a sound education system, the promising peace process that will help the country recover after 50 years of civil war might be at risk.
• UNI Global Union has strongly condemned a death threat made against Eric Amador Toro, the National Treasurer of the Union of Colombian Health Workers, SINTRASALUDCOL (UNICARE affiliate) in Colombia.
Amador received the death threat in a letter which said the union leader ‘had been targeted as a military objective for his “condemnations” expressed as a member of the SINTRASALUDCOL Union’. The letter demanded Amador stop work and leave his city if he wanted to avoid endangering his life and that of his family.
The letter further threatened that ‘there will be no second communication’. It is the duty of the Colombian government to protect all its citizens and to ensure that those persons who are responsible for making such unacceptable threats and who perpetrate acts of violence against the trade union movement are brought to justice.
UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings has immediately intervened by writing to President Santos of Colombia and calling on him to do everything in his power to stop this attack on yet another union leader. He stated: ‘When I met with President Santos in Davos in January, I congratulated him on the progress of the peace process.
‘I also reminded him of his responsibility to stop attacks on unions leaders who have long been the targets of those who seek to prevent freedom of speech and freedom of association in Colombia. 3,700 union members among 222,000 victims of the fifty year war paid the ultimate price. Eric Amador Toro must not become another statistic and this violence must not continue. President Santos must show that Colombia will not tolerate such threats and attacks in the this new era of “peace”. Our message is clear – this must stop now.’
In view of this alarming situation, UNI Global Union, and the entire international community demand that the safety of Amador and his family be respected and safeguarded. We make this appeal in the name of UNI Global Union, an international trade union federation that represents workers in the services sector with more than 20 million members and 900 affiliated unions.
• A prominent member of a dissident group of FARC guerrillas was killed in an attempted arrest on Monday, according to the defence minister.
Mauricio de Jesus Medina, aka ‘Morrudo,’ died in an operation carried out by Colombian police in the rural area of San Vicente del Caguan, the capital of the southern Caqueta province, Defence Minister Luis Carlos Villegas told press.
According to Villegas’ the dissident guerrilla’s death ‘constitutes the first major blow on the part of the authorities against the FARC dissidents.’ According to authorities, ‘Morrudo’ was a trusted confidant of ‘Gentil Duarte,’ the leader of the dissident 7th Front, one of six of the FARC’s approximately 50 units that have rejected the peace process.