Colombia: How a Delegation Revitalized My Union Solidarity

by Ruth Fast, Chicago office volunteer and member of the May 2013 CPT Colombia delegation

William Mendoza (right) speaks to delegation through CPT interpreter Stewart Vriesinga; the author at left.An attempt eleven years ago by company thugs to kidnap William Men-doza’s four-year-old daughter failed because of his wife's tenacious grip on the child.  Still, fear of further violence led to the breakup of their marriage. William’s story is one of thousands that put Colombia at the top of the list of most dangerous nations to be a member of a trade union.

As president of the local Coca Cola International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Barrancabermeja, Mendoza's work for fair wages and decent working conditions puts him in the sights of paramilitaries hired by the company to intimidate and threaten union leaders, keep wages and benefits low and extract more profits.

Paramilitaries have threatened, killed and disappeared Mendoza’s colleagues. He currently has a govern- ment-supplied bodyguard because of threats on his life. His union office has bulletproof windows, and security cameras monitor the building's entrance.

Mendoza takes measures to save his own life, but the fight to save the union and defend the workers' right to organize is the passion that has driven him to this point.  He understands his predicament—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 for just wages, fair working conditions and putting “Children First”: the motto of Chicago Public Schools (CPS).  With the CPS administration making the lives of teachers and staff increasingly difficult by creating larger classes, more crowded schools, more work for teachers for the same pay rate, and disrupting communities by closing schools, our struggle is real.

While union leaders in the U.S. do not face death threats, we are fired, laid off, and told we are lying about workers’ hardships; our pension plan is not secure and we suffer financial hardship.  

As a retired CPS social worker, I am insulated from the daily struggles of my union leaders, teachers and school staff. I could forget William and the agony he endures, the continued threats on his life and the lives of his union comrades. But this experience in Colombia has reminded me that to defend workers' rights locally is to defend them internationally. Fighting for children’s right to a quality public education in Chicago, and facing down paramilitaries in Barranca-bermeja are parts of a common struggle.