U.S. Trade Rep Office Helpfully Explains that Only 28 Trade Unionists Were Murdered in Colombia Last Year

By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen

I said on the last post on the TPP that there was one more thing I wanted to point out. It was ably covered by Michael McAuliff of The Huffington Post, and it reminds me of one of those famed Monty Python “letters to the editor,” written after a sketch portraying British seamen as cannibals.

Dear Sir, I am glad to hear that your studio audience disapproves of the last skit as strongly as I. As a naval officer I abhor the implication that the Royal Navy is a haven for cannibalism. It is well known that we have the problem relatively under control, and that it is the RAF who now suffer the largest casualties in this area. And what do you think the Argylls ate in Aden. Arabs? Yours etc. Captain B.J. Smethwick in a white wine sauce with shallots, mushrooms and garlic.

Here’s the context. Rich Trumka reacted an open hearing on Tuesday to the “labor standards” in prior trade agreements. “When you say, ‘Oh these are some standards, they’re better than no standards,’ we were told by by the [United States Trade Representative] general counsel that murdering a trade unionist doesn’t violate these standards, that perpetuating violence against a trade unionist doesn’t violate these agreements.” To back this up, Trumka cited a report that came out just this month in Colombia, where 105 trade unionists have been murdered since 2011, after the U.S. signed a free trade pact where improving labor standards was intended to be an important end goal.

Specifically, AFL-CIO deputy chief of staff Thea Lee said that twice, she was in meetings where killings of trade unionists in Guatemala and Honduras were brought up, and USTR said that would not be considered a violation of the labor rights chapter of the trade deal, because it was “a rule of law problem.”

So McAuliff checked with USTR about it. They said those Guatemala and Honduras cases are under CAFTA, a deal negotiated by George W. Bush with weak labor standards. So then USTR spokesman Andrew Bates was asked about Colombia, a free trade agreement Obama pushed for and signed, with a specific piece called the “Labor Action Plan” committing the country to a host of new laws (setting up a Labor Ministry, hiring inspectors, creating metrics and monitoring) to improve practices. Would continued murders of trade unionists count there?

Bates pointed to USTR data that shows killings of union organizers dropped from about 100 a year before the pact to about 28 killings a year now.

“There has been a significant decline in violence against union members and labor activists in Colombia over the time that we have been working with Colombia under the Action Plan,” Bates added. “We will continue to work with the Departments of Labor and State to make further progress in this regard.”

Emphasis mine, and you read that right, the United States is proud that, four years after they implemented a plan to improve human rights in Colombia, a trade unionist is murdered only every other week.

It probably goes without saying that the statistics they’re citing are bullshit, or at the very least free of context. So let me provide that. It’s based on this USTR report that compares two time periods. See if you can figure out the problem.

From 2001 to 2010, Colombian experts reported an average of close to 100 murders per year of union members. From 2011 to 2014, the number dropped to an average of 28.

Here’s some data from US Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP). First of all, the majority of the killings came from armed right-wing paramilitaries (thanks, U.S. counter-insurgency groups!), and as those paramilitaries have demobilized and violence has subsided generally in the country, it stands to reason that violence against unionists would drop. USLEAP points this out, while adding that “most of the violence against trade unionists is a result of the victims’ normal union activities”:

During debates about the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, pro-FTA advocates asserted that the decrease in trade-union murders from the 2002 is due to increased efforts to protect union members. A more likely explanation is that in late 2002, the Uribe government offered to negotiate a peace accord with the paramilitaries and the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the largest paramilitary group). The AUC responded by announcing a unilateral ceasefire and paramilitary murders of trade unionists began to drop significantly for several years until holding relatively steady from 2007 on, with Colombia still leading the world in number of trade unionists murdered and while other forms of violence escalated.

The numbers were falling leading up to 2011:

The number of trade unionists murdered fell from the 2002 high of 192 to 72 in 2005 to 39 in 2007 but increased back to 51 in 2010 before dropping again in 2011 to 29.

2011 was the year the plan was inaugurated. There’s been basically no movement since then; violence actually went up from 2012 to 2013. Moreover, the attacks are directed at leaders, who are a) in short supply and b) likely to discourage other workers from joining up without having to, you know, kill them. And the only reason there looks to be a big drop is that 2002 figure. Basically, USTR reached back as far as they could to cite the highest number of murders in the pre-Labor Action Plan period.

Second, the workforce in Colombia has dropped from 15 percent unionization in 1993 to 4 percent today. So there are simply less unionists left to kill.

And third, 28 murders per year keeps Colombia as the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist on Earth. That’s after four years of work and all these supposedly vaunted efforts, which have done what could only be charitably described as “next to nothing.”

Because murders are not the only labor problem in Colombia. The report from the respected Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), or National Union School, is very detailed and describes the misery of organizing workers or wanting to collectively bargain in that country. You can read it yourself in Spanish. There were 1,933 threats and acts of overt violence over those four years, including 1,337 death threats. There were all kinds of other instances of retaliation against workers who try to organize, from illegal firings to non-renewal of contracts to incalculable incidents of daily harassment. Illegal firings appear to be a fact of life in Colombia, and discrimination against workers seeking their rights “has intensified,” per the report. Also there is “no evidence that fines are being collected” by the labor inspectors hired under the Labor Action Plan. ENS assigned a failing grade on virtually every measure.

As a side note, this is why you maybe don’t grant trade preferences to a country that casually murders people trying to organize workers based on a set of “standards,” however robust. Especially when your own State Department acknowledges that the country enforcing those standards maintains a corrupt judiciary and executive branch that “limits its ability to prosecute human rights violators.” Maybe if that country wants the benefits so bad, they can commit to it through outcomes rather than a promise of dubious quality, leading to standards not met, labor inspectors not collecting or imposing fines, and human beings assassinated in the streets. But, you know, a few less than before.

Applied to the TPP, where one country, Vietnam, has only one authorized union and it’s part of the Communist Party, and where violence has been depressingly normal, the question is will barely-there improvements be cited as “great progress,” and will murders of union members be considered a violation of the labor chapter? Of course, the agreement is a secret. Bates, the USTR spokesman, came back after HuffPost publication to insist that labor chapters do cover labor-related violence. AFL-CIO noted that if that was the case, why haven’t they done anything about the 105 dead unionists in Colombia over the last four years?

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About David Dayen

David is a contributing writer to Salon.com. He has been writing about politics since 2004. He spent three years writing for the FireDogLake News Desk; he’s also written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, The Washington Monthly, Alternet, Democracy Journal and Pacific Standard, as well as multiple well-trafficked progressive blogs and websites. His has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio and Air America Radio. He has contributed to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and another on the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Prior to writing about politics he worked for two decades as a television producer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.


  1. Marko

    Give them a break. If U.S. politicians weren’t lying psychopaths , they’d have no personality at all.

  2. EoinW

    Once again it’s rather sad that the 1% commit murder whenever they like but the rest of us are above such behavior. That’s all good for the conscience but it does make us willing victims. I wonder when we will begin to fight back. Perhaps we never will.

    1. hunkerdown

      “Above”. Exactly the tool that keeps the prey manageable. There is no pride in being feedstock.

  3. TheCatSaid

    Thanks for posting this and for highlighting the use of math & numbers to mislead/deceive.
    If the numbers eventually do fall, maybe it will only be the result of the ongoing culling.
    Chilling–but I guess that’s the purpose. How does one best inspire and support the folks who are taking up the cause, despite the risk?

  4. Ulysses

    “So there are simply less unionists left to kill.”

    People often forget how much violence punctuated the early history of our own labor movement, here in the U.S. I was thinking about this the other day, on the anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludlow_Massacre

    We cannot allow the transnational kleptocracy to rip away all of the progress that earlier generations of workers fought and died for! When worker’s rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!!

  5. Crazy Horse

    Looks like Colombia has arrived at the perfect solution to reduce murders of union leaders. Simply follow the US model and eliminate unions.

    Long live the free market where everybody has the right to sell their labor at the lowest price the market will support.

    Now if we would just eliminate unfair competition by government assistance, food stamps, medicare, and Social Security then the market could work its wonders and arrive at the true fair cost for labor.

    1. steelhead23

      I know you wrote that in sarcasm, but beware, your worst imaginings are coming true. When the power of capital greatly exceeds the power of labor you get slavery.

      1. Procopius

        Adam Smith’s mention of the “invisible hand” does not mean what capitalists want you to think it means, but Adam Smith was not really an economist. He was Professor of Moral Studies at Edinburgh University, and he observed the morality of his fellow man with a sharp eye. From Wealth of Nations, Book 3, Chapter 2, Paragraph 10:

        “The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Wherever the law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen.”

        This is something we should be repeating as often as the “free market” propagandists tout “free to choose.”

      2. Crazy Horse

        Slavery only exists because the labor of the slaves has value and enriches the slave owner. In contemporary bankster capitalism the sheeple who have been fleeced of all their assets and replaced by automation or cheap foreign labor have no value as slaves. That is to say after they have been indebted to the point of “peak debt” and that debt securitized and sold to the “trustees” of the pension funds of their previous employer. At that point they are of absolutely no use to the vampire capitalist system and are best rendered into something useful like protein meal to be fed to cattle.

        1. bh2

          High levels of personal debt are virtually unknown in those countries which have “slave labor” and typical workers in those countries (particularly Asian countries) tend to be net savers.

          Wage slavery isn’t defined by how much workers earn. It’s defined by how much they get to keep. A necessity to earn way more money just to meet monthly payments to the bankers is the worst kind of “slave labor”. This is as true of nations as it is of individuals.

          The Colombian people endured years of horror inflicted by vicious drug lords and political insurgents and bravely fought back to reclaim their country and their lives. The number of labor leaders killed during that period would have been lost in the rounding.

          Colombians would readily agree their society must continue to tangibly improve conditions for ordinary people and that effort continues as a high priority.

          Those goals will not be fully accomplished in a fortnight. Expectations of perfection are the luxury of people who, themselves, have never faced those hardships. One may reasonably wonder whether they would have as quickly accomplished as much under the same circumstances.

  6. Mattski

    The problem is–as the wonderful Thea Lee undoubtedly is all too well aware–that the AFL-CIO not only contributed to this state of affairs for decades, but conspired to have leftist trade unions undermined and trade unionists killed all over Latin America:


    We only ever dig halfway at this site, only ever glimpse the monster writhing beneath the daily dross: the monster is the system itself. It’s better than nothing (add smile thingy).

    1. hunkerdown

      Well, thank you, but if you’re too proud to roll up your sleeves and lend a shovel now and again, at least don’t overestimate your usefulness.

      1. Mattsk

        Would love to know what this means. If you were attempting to communicate, you were unsuccessful.

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