December 1, 2006 Volume 107 Number 23

Hope in Venezuela, fear in Colombia

A delegation of eight Portland-area unionists visited Venezuela and Colombia for 10 days Nov. 9-20, meeting union activists and coming to grips with what life is like for workers in those countries.

They found unions surging in numbers and power in the Venezuela of populist paratrooper Hugo Chávez, while in neighboring Colombia, assassinations and death threats are on the verge of driving unions underground.

The group will give a public report on their experience at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 5, at the Carpenters Local 247 hall, 2215 N. Lombard St.

The trip, organized by the Portland-based Cross Border Labor Organizing Council, drew participation from a cross-section of local labor organizations: Fair Contracting Foundation Executive Director Daniel Bonham; AFSCME Local 88 secretary Michael Hanna; International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 8 member Peter Parks; Service Employees Local 503 political action committee chair Rosalie Pedroza; ILWU Local 4 Vice President Robert Poppe; SEIU field coordinator Lorene Scheer; Association of Western Pulp and Paperworkers organizer Stephen Toff; and Parkrose High School teacher and Oregon Education Association member May Wallace. Most were fluent or at least competent in Spanish, but translation was provided.

The group spent five days in Caracas, Venezuela, and six days in Bogotá, Colombia.

They found Venezuela in the grip of an exploding social movement. The country’s oil wealth was for generations locked up in the hands of an economic elite, while most Venezuelans just got by. But a 1998 electoral sweep by Chávez, a former army officer, changed the politics of the country. Chávez and his party rewrote Venezuela’s constitution, which won 72 percent approval in a popular referendum. It enshrines the right to education, employment, housing, health care and a clean environment, dedicates Venezuela’s oil wealth to educating and improving the lives of the poor, and spells out detailed rights for workers, including a maximum 44-hour workweek, paid vacation and the right to form unions, bargain collectively and strike.

In response to the sweeping changes, many of the country’s rich and middle class fought back energetically, even backing a coup d’etat in 2002 that failed when Chávez supporters in the military defended the elected government. Today the conflict continues by non-violent means, but Chávez retains majority support and is expected to win a second six- year term in a Dec. 3 election.

The Portland delegation met with both supporters and critics of the Chávez administration but came away impressed with the gains workers have made since his election.

“It gives me a lot of hope to see workers taking so much charge of their own destiny in Venezuela,” said Bonham, whose group defends Oregon’s construction industry prevailing wage laws. “I would very much like to see that kind of spirit and enthusiasm in the labor movement here.”

After five days in Venezuela, Colombia was a shock to the system, said CBLOC organizer Daniel Denvir, who accompanied the delegation.

Colombia has suffered 40 years of civil war, with left-wing guerrilla groups battling right-wing paramilitary forces and the Colombian military. Union organizers, marked as leftists by paramilitaries, face constant threat of being shot or dragged from their homes, never to reappear. Colombia is considered the most dangerous country in the world for union organizers.

Two supporters of a teachers union were murdered just before several leaders met with the delegation.

The Portland delegation met with the U.S. embassy’s labor attaché, asking about those killed, but came away with the impression it was a low priority. The U.S. has long given aid to the Colombian military, despite periodic evidence that the military collaborates with the paramilitary groups that human rights groups say are committing most of the country’s atrocities.

“In Colombia, you don’t talk about politics,” said Parks, a Portland dock worker and union activist. “You don’t wear a shirt identifying you as a union supporter. You keep quiet.”

The Portlanders met with a group of flower plantation workers who recently unionized, and visited a shanty town populated by refugees who survived paramilitary and guerrilla massacres.

“They didn’t want sympathy,” Parks said. “They still had hope.”

Now that the delegation is back in Portland, the real work begins, Bonham said. Participants hope to forge enduring relationships with unions in the two countries, to exchange ideas and help on campaigns at common employers and struggles against job destroying trade agreements.

“We’ve gotten comfortable,” Bonham said. “We haven’t had to fight that hard recently. But more and more, it’s a global economy, and we’re in this together.”