Unlike other countries in the region, such as Argentina and Chile, the Colombian labor movement did not have a long history of militant confrontation. The main exception was in the 1920s, when Colombia experienced sustained, violent labor revolts, including strikes against the United Fruit Company. In addition to being moderate, fragmented, and closely allied with the traditional parties or the Roman Catholic Church, the labor movement never has accounted for more than one-third of the organized labor force, which itself represented only about onefifth of the total labor force. In 1988 an estimated 12 percent of Colombia's economically active population was unionized. Elements of the labor movement increasingly resorted to strikes and demonstrations in the 1980s, but these generally were resolved by concessions on both sides.
The labor unions sometimes had an impact on policy through the use of strike tactics. Persistent inflation, charges of government corruption, and high unemployment accounted for the increase in labor militancy in the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, by the 1970s labor legislation had developed in such a manner as to afford the government a large measure of control over the labor movement. Legislation gave priority to company-level unions by requiring them to bargain at the company level, rather than at the industry level. It limited the right to strike to forty days for most workers and for state employees, and it empowered the government to impose cooling-off periods and arbitration of disputes. Labor's links to government were limited to a few union representatives who served on special boards or commissions formed to resolve crisis situations or to propose policies. Unions also received sizable government subsidies. Unlike the producers' associations, the union leadership bodies did not include government officials.
In August 1986, the leftist union movement took a significant step toward unity by forming the United Workers Central Organization (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores--CUT), which grouped the Trade Union Confederation of Colombian Workers (Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores de Colombia--CSTC), members of the traditional PL and PC confederations, and nonaffiliated unions. Although not officially a member of the Soviet-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the CUT was strongly influenced by its pro-Moscow communist component and retained close ties to the international communist labor movement. The CUT's call for a national one-day general strike on October 13, 1987, to protest an alleged lack of government action to control the death squads met with a large response as teachers, transport workers, public employees, and members of the judiciary stopped work.
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