26 July 2013
COLOMBIA REFLECTION: What it means to be a union member in Colombia and Chicago
by Ruth Fast
[Note: Fast was a member of the most recent Christian Peacemaker Team delegation to Colombia in May.]
|William Mendoza speaks to CPT Colombia
delegation while CPT Colombia team member
years ago, company thugs attempted to kidnap William Mendoza’s four-year-old
daughter. They were unable to take her because his wife simply refused to
release her grip on the child. This incident caused William’s marriage to
break up because of his wife’s fear of further violence. His story is one of
thousands that, when combined, have for decades put Colombia at the top of the list
of most dangerous nations to be a member of a trade union.
Mendoza is President of the local Coca Cola ILWU (International Longshore and
Warehouse Union) in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. Because he was working for
fair wages and decent working conditions for Coca Cola workers, paramilitary
groups hired by the company to intimidate and threaten leaders of the union had
targeted him. This U.S. company
operating in Colombia is keeping wages and benefits low so they can extract
more profits for the company and we can drink soft drinks at lower prices.
Paramilitaries have killed, disappeared, or threatened Mendoza’s colleagues
because of their work. At present, William has a bodyguard supplied by
the Colombian government because of threats on his life. His union office
has bulletproof windows, and security cameras monitor the front of the building. Sometimes William wonders how useful
the bodyguard would be in a real threat to his safety. However, dismissing the
bodyguard would probably invite a lethal attack.
Mendoza is working to save his own life, but the fight to save the union and
affirm the right of workers to organize is the passion that has driven him to
this point. He clearly understands the contradictory predicament: that
the harder he fights for workers’ rights and safety, the more he endangers his
own life—yet he fights.
I thought about my own union membership and the Chicago Teachers’ Union
struggle as it continues to work for just wages, fair working conditions and
the living out of “Children First”: the motto of the Chicago Public Schools
(CPS). This struggle continues in spite of the CPS administration making
the lives of teachers and staff in the neighborhood increasingly difficult by
creating larger classes, more crowded schools, more work for teachers at the
same pay rate, well as disrupting communities by closing schools.
My union friends, union leaders, and I do not face death threats here in the
U.S. However, we are fired, laid off, and told we are lying about
workers’ hardships; our pension plan is not secure and we suffer financial
As a retired CPS school social worker, I sit in my comfortable home, insulated
from the struggles my union leaders, the teachers, and school staff live daily.
I could forget William and the agony he lives daily with continued threats on
his life and the lives of his comrades in the union. But this experience in Colombia has strengthen my union
commitment and gives me more energy to stand with my union for the benefit of
Chicago students, their parents and for the rights of all children to a quality
ILWU leaders and members understand that to fight for the rights of workers in
Colombia is to fight for the rights of all workers internationally. I came back
to the U.S. with my union commitment strengthened as I saw lives threatened in
the Colombia. I know that fighting for our union rights in the Chicago
also strengthens the union movement internationally.