August 31, 2001

Blood for Coal

By David Bacon

WASHINGTON, DC - Every summer, supporters of human rights in Congress seek to derail the huge budget for Plan Colombia. This July, however, the military aid the US has been sending to one side of that country's civil war wasn't the only reason Colombia wound up in the middle of Congressional debate. The heated controversy surrounding the administration's energy policy, passed in the House on July 31, laid bare a growing economic reason why the U.S. is being drawn into that conflict. And it's not drugs. It's coal.

Stepping up U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, especially coal, produces more than environmental consequences. One of the main countries now a source for coal burned in U.S. power plants is Colombia. And in Colombia, U.S. energy, military and trade policy are becoming intertwined with devastating consequences for the country's labor movement.

"Deaths due to political violence [have] roughly doubled from previous years," Massachusetts Democrat John F. Tierney told fellow Congress members on the House floor in early July. "These are innocent people trying to make Colombia a safer and more prosperous place, like Cristobol Uribe Beltran of the Association of Workers and Employees in Hospitals, Clinics and Organizations, who was kidnapped on June 27th and assassinated the very next day. Innocent lives [are being] brought to an end for no legitimate reason. This is not progress."

Leading a union often means losing a job, even blacklisting. In many countries, it can bring imprisonment by governments who view unions as a threat to the social and economic elite. But in some countries, election to union office carries even greater peril. And the most dangerous country by far is Colombia, where labor activism is often punished with death.

By mid-May, 44 Colombian trade union leaders had been violently murdered this year alone. Last year's assassinations cost the lives of 129 others. The National Labor School, a non-governmental institute which supports the country's labor movement, reports that 1500 have been killed in the past decade. And according to Hector Fajardo, general secretary of Colombia's largest union federation, the Unified Confederation of Workers (CUT), 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986.

Last year, out of every 5 trade unionists killed in the world, 3 were Colombian, according to a recent report by the United Steel Workers. U.S. unions increasingly point to a network of administration policies which contribute to the targeting of Colombian unionists. The U.S.' Plan Colombia provides over $1 billion to Colombia's military, justified as necessary to suppress cocaine production. In reality, however, organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented extensively that aid provided by Plan Colombia supports activities by rightwing paramilitary groups, who in turn target trade union leaders.

At the same time, Bush administration energy policies encourage the use of coal in U.S. power plants, and millions of tons are now mined in the midst of Colombia's civil war by U.S. corporations. Privatization of Colombian mines and oil fields, pushed by the International Monetary Fund, is leading to the further concentration of those operations in the hands of large U.S. corporations.

Meanwhile, free-market economic reforms, also pushed by the IMF, are provoking a wave of resistance by Colombian workers, which is being met by violent repression.

The fact that U.S. unions have something to say about Colombia is itself a big change. In the days of the cold war, American labor defended administration policies in Latin America, and saw Colombian unions as dangerously radical. Today unions like the United Steel Workers are trying hard to break with that history. Human rights abuses in Colombia, they say, have a direct impact on U.S. workers and union members. A low-wage Colombian workforce, whose labor rights are attacked and union leaders murdered, gives U.S. companies a low-cost advantage in moving production there.

One of the cases they point to is that of two murdered coal miners.

In mid-March, Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita were riding from their jobs at the Loma coal mine in northern Colombia. Locarno Rodriguez and Orcasita were chairman and vice-chairman of the union at the mine, a local of Sintra-mienergetica, one of Colom-bia's two coal miners' unions. As the company bus neared Valledupar, 30 miles from the mine, it was stopped by 15 gunmen, some in military uniforms. They began checking the identification of the workers, and when they found the two union leaders, they were pulled off the bus.

Locarno has hit in the heat with a rifle butt. One of the gunmen then shot him in the face, as his fellow workers on the bus watched in horror. Orcasita was taken off into the woods at the side of the road. There he was tortured. When his body was later found, his fingernails had been torn off.

Protesting the deaths, 1200 miners at Loma briefly stopped work. The Loma mine is owned by a U.S. multinational corporation, Drummond Co., Inc., based in Birmingham, Alabama. Drummond opened the Loma mine in 1994, and it is now Colombia's second largest. At first, according to Ken Zinn, North American regional coordinator of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions, the company promised workers in its U.S. mines that its Colombian coal wouldn't be imported into the U.S. to compete with its U.S. operations. But since 1994, Drummond has closed 5 mines in Alabama, laying off 1700 members of the United Mine Workers. Its one remaining U.S. mine employs about 500 miners.

Last year, 5 million tons of Colombian coal crossed the Alabama State Docks in Mobile. It was bound for plants operated by the Alabama Power Co., a division of the Southern Co., which also operates generating facilities in Florida and Mississippi. (Southern is now familiar to California consumers under its new name, Mirant - one of the out-of-state power generators selling electricity at exorbitant prices on the spot market.) The company's Alabama plants were formerly fueled by Drummond's U.S. mines. Another half million tons went to the Alabama Electrical Cooperative.

Alabama used to export coal — 13 million tons in 1996, mostly from Drummond mines. Last year's exports totaled only 3 million tons. At the Loma mine, production rose 4 million tons in 2000, to a total of 11.8 million, after the company built a huge drag line. The company expects to sell 15 million tons next year, and 25 million tons by 2006.

For Drummond the transfer has resulted in substantial savings on labor costs. A UMWA miner in Alabama earns $18/hour, or $3060/month, not counting benefits. At the Loma mine, the four wage classifications range from 1,500,000 to 2,100,000 pesos a month, about $477-955(US).

Drummond, says UMWA vice-president Jerry Jones, transferred operations to Colombia "knowing that country's hostile political climate and egregious human rights violations." Conditions for Colombian miners are some of the world's most dangerous. An April 27 blast at the Cana Brava mine in Santander province took the lives of 15 miners. In October of 1997, another explosion buried 16 coal miners alive in El Diviso mine, near Cucuta.

Colombia is the world's fourth-largest coal exporter - it shipped 30 million tons in 2000, worth $794 million, making coal the country's third-largest source of export earnings. Last year the government's mines in central Colombia were privatized as part of economic reforms mandated by the International Monetary Fund, and sold to a consortium of South African, Swiss and British investors for $384 million.

The Cerrejon Norte mine is the largest open-pit producer in Latin America. Formerly state-owned, it is now operated as a joint venture between the government and Exxon Corp. In 2000, the mine produced 18.4 million tons of coal, half Colombia's total output, making it the largest export mine in the world. Half of that output went to Exxon, which sold 17% of it to two southeast utilities - the Jacksonville (Florida) Electric Cooperative and Mississippi Power.

After developing Cerrejon Norte in the mid-1908s, Exxon, like Drummond, began cutting its U.S. coal production. It closed a new mine in West Virginia, an older one in Illinois, and sold off operations in the Rockies, Exxon, which used to employ over 1600 US miners, now employs just 321 people at its one remaining mine in Monterey, Illinois. Meanwhile, it's Colombian operation now accounts for over half the company's coal production worldwide.

Drummond clearly sees an interest in supporting a Bush administration policy which encourages the increased use of coal in electrical generation. And it sees U.S. military intervention in Colombia in its interest as well. "We are in support of the Colombian Plan and the U.S. efforts in the drug war," Mike Tracy, a Drum-mond spokesman, told independent journalist Stephen Jackson, whose report was published in the Latin American Post.

The Colombian army provides security for Exxon at Cerrejon Norte from a military base just a few miles away, presumably using hardware supplied under Plan Colombia. It has a history of involvement in labor disputes in the mine - in the early 1990s Cerrejon Norte was occupied by tanks after the government ordered the military to break a miners's strike.

Other U.S. energy corporations, like Occidental Petroleum, depend on the Colombian army as well, to provide security in their oilfields.

Drummond's desire for a friendly administration policy translated into a $50,000 donation to the Republican National Committee last July, and $25,000 to the National Republican Congressional Campaign and $20,000 to the National Republican Senate Campaign last October. Overall, the coal industry dumped $3.8 million into the 2000 elections, and gave 80% of it to Republicans. In turn, the Bush campaign pursued a "cars and coal" strategy to win mining states, among others, based on an industry-friendly perspective.

On November 3, days before the election, candidate Bush told a West Virginia crowd that "coal is going to help energize America." He didn't promise, however, that it would be U.S.-mined coal. And after the election, the administration drop-ped a campaign pledge that it would back carbon-dioxide emissions reductions from coal-fired power stations. That policy change has a big impact on the Alabama plants burning Colombian coal.

"That shouldn't be a surprise," comments Mike Buck-ner, a researcher for the United Mine Workers. "Bush comes from the state which is the country's largest consumer of coal, and Dick Cheney from the state which is the largest producer."

Bush's energy policy, which passed the House of Representatives on August 1, was good news to companies like Exxon and Drummond. The plan calls for building an additional 1300-1900 new electrical generating stations over the next 20 years, each producing an average 300 megawatts of power. While the exact number remains uncertain, these will be overwhelmingly fossil-fuel burning plants.

One result will be a vast increase in the consumption of coal. And if the number of coal-fired plants in southeast and Atlantic coast states increases drastically under the new energy policy, the market for Colombian coal will mushroom.

"It's clear that certain sections of the energy policy follow industry plans closely," concludes Argin Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Responsibility for the murders of Locarno and Orcasita was laid at the feet of Colombia's rightist paramilitary army, the United Defense Groups (AUC), by the police commander for Cesar Province, Hugo Alfonso Cepeda.

While coal mine union leaders are clearly targets of the paramilitaries, they're not the only ones, even in the energy sector, one of the country's most crucial. Just days after the murders in Valledupar, two leaders of the Colombian electrical workers union, Andres Granados and Jaime Sanchez, were gunned down March 22. In mid-March, Eugenio San-chez Diaz, a union activist in Colombia's key oil town of Barrancabermeja was dragged from his home and shot in the street.

And on July 6, paramilitaries tried to assassinate another oil union leader, Hernando Her-nandez, who narrowly escaped after being warned by friends. His case made it into the Congressional debate. "Mr. Her-nandez, is one of the lucky ones," thundered Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY). "In the first 45 days of this year, 145 people have been killed in this small city. These killings take place in spite of the fact that this is one of the most militarized cities in all of Colombia. The Colombian Army's Fifth Brigade maintains a military presence, and that includes the U.S.-funded 61st Advanced Riverine Battalion.

These units have made absolutely no serious efforts to restrain the paramilitaries from committing these atrocities."

The Colombian government also views union activity as a threat because it challenges its basic economic policies. The Colombian administration of President Andres Pastrana is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to cut the public sector budget, causing the mass terminations, along with cuts in education, healthcare and pensions. Finance minister Juan Manuel Santos announced in January measures that would close many state agencies, laying off 42,000 workers. The money would be used to pay the country's debt to foreign banks and lending institutions, making Colombia more attractive to foreign investors.

This spring, the United Steel Workers sent a formal delegation to Colombia in the wake of the murders of Locarno Rodriguez and Orcasita. Led by attorney Dan Kovalik and Rapid Response Coordinator Glynda Williams, the delegation met with leaders of the main Colombian labor federation, the CUT.

After the USWA delegation made its report, the union's president Leo Gerard warned the U.S. government that "we are strongly opposed to the amount of military aid being sent to the Colombian Army when trade unionists and innocent people are being killed by the very military forces we are financing." Many in Congress agree. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) says "cutting funds from the Colombian military makes sense. This is a military that has repeatedly been implicated in the brutalization and murder of the very people that it is supposed to protect."

The USWA criticism follows a position taken by the AFL-CIO last year, which also called for ending military assistance. The federation picketed the Colombian embassy in April, condemning the murder of union leaders. That position puts the U.S. labor federation at odds with the Bush administration on a key foreign policy issue, and marks a basic change in relations between U.S. and Colombian labor.

David Bacon covers labor issues and is a frequent contributor

Return to the Frontpage