The Labor Movement

The Labor Movement

The labor movement, although rich in history, has been criticized by analysts for its inability to develop effective representation for the Colombian worker. Scholars have variously described organized labor as weak, nonradical, nonoppositional, and as virtually co-opted by the national government. Although prominent at times, unions lacked the strong adversarial presence characteristic of organized workers' groups in other Latin American countries. Historically, Colombia's worker groups formed unions to attain political goals but failed to coalesce into enduring collective bargaining units. Nevertheless, the labor movement did express itself clearly through strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of work stoppage and contributed directly to the long-term development of society by bringing workers into the political process.

The first workers' group was formed in 1857. Known as the Bogotá Artisans Society (Sociedad de Artesanos de Bogotá), it represented a reaction to liberal economic reforms bent on opening the Colombian economy to free trade. It functioned primarily as a medium for local artisans to vent their political displeasure over the new competitiveness of the economy, rather than as a forum for grievances concerning workers' rights.

Societies that followed in the nineteenth century were similarly nonconfrontational and served as foci for achieving mutually beneficial goals--such as establishing joint savings and insurance schemes--rather than as means of presenting collective bargaining demands. Although some attempts were made to improve wages and working conditions, a genuine workers' movement did not emerge until the end of World War I.

The earliest episodes of violent confrontation between workers and management centered on the foreign enclave industries of oil and banana exportation. The most noted job action occurred at the United Fruit Company's Santa Marta complex, where in November 1928 railroad, banana, port, and field workers went on strike to force changes in wages, hours, and nonwage compensation. This attempt to win resolution of grievances unsuccessfully aired ten years earlier was marked by the violent deaths of about 1,000 people, as the government intervened repressively on the side of the United Fruit Company. The banana and oil industries elected to retrench, however, rather than face continued worker unrest. Colombia's labor issues thereafter were fought over more vigorously in the domestically owned coffee industry and eventually in the urban industrial sector.

In 1930 the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal--PL) was elected for the first time in decades. Its victory was directly associated with the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PC) government's handling of the United Fruit Company strike. This political transition was one of the most important in Colombian history. It signaled the end of a government policy designed to repress labor's efforts and the beginning of the PL's pragmatic and conciliatory philosophy of selectively meeting labor's demands to bring its political leadership, including members of the Communist Party of Colombia (Partido Comunista de Colombia--PCC), into the Liberal fold.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, coffee workers enjoyed numerous small successes. They gained control over small parcels of land for their own cultivation, improved labor contracts on large estates, and received legal permission to organize. These victories were won through both individual and collective efforts. The perceived successes of the coffee workers, however, were a disincentive to their greater participation in the national labor movement, which diminished the long-term political power of the unions. Nonetheless, the urban work force was determined to establish an institutionalized labor movement and set about integrating some of the unions that had already formed.

The 1930s and 1940s saw the growth of unions nationwide; labor supported the PL, which, in turn, created an environment conducive to labor's participation in politics. Labor interests were partially consolidated in 1935 with the creation of the Confederation of Colombian Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Colombianos--CTC), which represented the first successful attempt at uniting smaller unions from various professions into a collective political organization. The CTC was leftist by definition, but the reformist policies of the Liberal government allowed for a lengthy and mutually beneficial relationship. What labor failed to realize, however, was that by aligning itself with a single political party, it would suffer the consequence of the inevitable change of power.

The heyday of the labor movement was clearly over by the mid- 1940s. Expressly anticommunist, postwar conservatism turned on the labor movement, and the split and eventual fall of the PL in the 1946 elections eliminated labor's influence on national government. The rising PC also provided a means to express the ruling class's growing fear of what it perceived as an increasingly radical labor movement. Soon, even the moderate middle sectors of society turned away from the movement. The CTC's new impotence was made evident by a string of unsuccessful strikes in the mid-1940s.

Taking advantage of the weakened state of the CTC, the Roman Catholic Church established the Union of Colombian Workers (Unión de Trabajadores Colombianos--UTC) in June 1946. It immediately attracted many members--some from the ranks of the CTC and others from small unions, particularly industry groups--that had not been enticed to join the leftist CTC. Both industrialists and the Conservative government supported the UTC, largely because it did not represent a threat to the political and economic elite. The subsequent period of labor repression and co-optation by the government served to eliminate radical elements of the movement while taming the less militant segments. During the period known as la violencia (1948-66), organized union labor was effectively dead; it had no means of articulating its interests, and the chaotic nature of society at that time delayed further coalition for at least ten years.

The near anarchy that followed the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a member of Congress who had long been a champion of the disadvantaged, had a different although equally demoralizing effect on rural workers. The plight of smallholder coffee farmers worsened rapidly, and many of them fled the countryside in the face of widespread violence. This served to consolidate landholdings in rural areas, as well as drive large numbers of unskilled rural laborers into the hands of the UTC. Collectively, labor emerged from the 1950s demoralized and virtually without political power. The UTC, which at this point commanded the majority of organized labor and the diminished rural groups, had no political means of effecting even the slightest changes and was without an advocate in national government.

After 1960 two more labor federations surfaced: the Trade Union Confederation of Colombian Workers (Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores de Colombia--CSTC), formally recognized by the government in 1964, and the General Confederation of Workers (Confederación General de Trabajadores--CGT), created in 1975. The CSTC, which was aligned with the Colombian Communists, and the CGT, which was affiliated with the Christian Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Democrática Cristiano--PSDC), accounted for a combined total of 20 percent of the unionized work force. Neither union had a strong political role, however, under the National Front, which served to unify all significant political interest groups within a shared two-party structure from 1958 to 1974. There was no apparent need to incorporate labor as a political ally. Additionally, during the National Front period the CTC and UTC faced numerous internal problems, which caused many individual unions to withdraw from the larger federations.

Regardless of political setbacks, the labor movement was not totally ineffective. Various groups engineered successful strikes in the 1970s and 1980s. Bolstered by leftist leadership, the weakened status of the CTC and the UTC, and the economic austerity measures of the government of Belisario Betancur Cuartas (1982-86), labor groups coalesced in 1986 in a fashion reminiscent of the 1930s. A majority of the independent unions and those affiliated with the CSTC joined forces in September 1986 to form the United Workers Central Organization (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores-- CUT). Analysts estimated that this body included 75 percent of the organized work force, the majority of whom were no longer willing to accept an acquiescent platform. The CUT also emerged as a major voice against organized violence and served as a catalyst for uniting other labor elements. It was not, however, timid about organizing strikes, and key industries reacted to CUT initiatives by meeting many of its demands rather than face prolonged confrontation.

By the late 1980s, the confederated labor movement appeared to be playing a larger role in representing workers' rights, as well as focusing on major political issues. Although it seemed unlikely that a collaborative effort similar to the one struck with the Liberal administrations of the 1930s would again be possible, the CUT was reshaping organized labor into a stronger bargaining movement.

The early months of 1988 were rife with strikes by workers in the banana, banking, cement, public service, and other industries. The most common demands centered on protection for union leaders, who were the targets of right-wing assassins, and cost-of-living adjustments in wages. Despite their growing hostility toward management, the CUT and other union groups refrained from openly defiant stands against the government. Nevertheless, observers believed that the extent to which the government would tolerate a more active labor movement depended on whether or not the unions seriously threatened the economic and political interests of the elite, as well as the degree to which they contributed to the persistent problem of organized violence in the country.

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