If there is anyone on the front line in the stuggle against capitalism it is the SINTRAEMCALI workers and their leaders. Their fight to stop the privatisation of water, electricity and telephone services provided by EMCALI municipal corporation is not a simple labour dispute, it is about the values on which society should be run.
SINTRAEMCALI – URIBE SHOWDOWN
"You must respect me! You must respect me!" shouted president Uribe Vélez across the table at SINTRAEMCALI's president Lucho Hernandez. Lucho was calm, "I respect the president, but the last part of what you just said is not true". "Yes he said it!" shouted the audience.
This verbal confrontation on 10th March was shown on national television and reported in all the press, a Colombian union leader had dared to stand up to Uribe. The setting was a supposed 'public' forum to which Uribe and his Superintendent of Public Services presented their options for the future of EMCALI public services corporation. The meeting was packed with employers and politicians and took place inside a military airbase. Lucho, accompanied by Congress representative Alexander Lopez and three representatives of Cali's poor communities, had to argue his way in. There are two "publics" in Colombia – the elite and the common people, and Uribe's consultation was obviously meant only for the elite club.
This goes to the core of the dispute over EMCALI's future. Are water, electricity and telecommunications services to be for the whole community or just the rich? For years SINTRAEMCALI has been battling for genuine community-led services. EMCALI has the lowest rates of all public and private corporations in Colombia. General prices rose by 27.8% between 1998 and 2001. Privatised electricity corporation CODENSA increased its prices to the lower strata by 46 %, while EMCALI has kept charges just below the rate of inflation.
Uribe's position is clear. His first option is to liquidate EMCALI and sell it off. His second option will keep EMCALI formally in the public sector, but on the two conditions that SINTRAEMCALI's Collective Agreement is broken, and that a Social Capitalisation Fund be established. This Fund would manage all EMCALI's debts and be controlled by the corporation's creditors, the US company Intergen and the national and international banks whose debt demands are bleeding the corporation, plus token representation from the workers and service users. In Uribe's proposal the Fund would be able to direct decisions on investment, debt and the business's operational contracts. A public-private partnership with the private element, finance capital, in the driving seat.
The point in dispute between Uribe and Lucho? Uribe claimed that on his previous visit to Cali on 9th August he had committed government support to the Social Capitalisation Fund. Lucho pointed out that he had not, and despite the baying against him of the business class, even the establishment El Tiempo newspaper reported that video evidence proved Lucho right.
Uribe relies on intimidation to get his way. He set a two week deadline, that ends on 24th March, for the union to submit [this has since been extended to 1st May – see next page].
All sections of the establishment from the press to the army are piling on the pressure. But SINTRAEMCALI workers enjoy massive support for their stand from the Cali community, and now emphatically from national leaders of the Polo Democratico opposition, and from state sector unions (education, health, oil, telecomms) likewise challenging the privatisation programme, which in Colombia means fighting for their very survival.
In a week of solidarity action Congressman Wilson Borja, Senator Gustavo Preto, presidential candidate Lucho Garzon, indigenous representative Taita Lorenzo Almendra, intellectuals Fals Borda and Daniel Libreros and other trade unions came to Cali to rally in defence of EMCALI. They addressed three mass meetings, the real community had come out to hear them, not Uribe. Alexander Lopez and Wilson Borja pointed out how Uribe's National Development Plan is being put to the test in the struggle to defend public services. Gustavo Preto emphasised that alongside the campaign for an abstention against Uribe's referendum, the struggle to defend EMCALI has become the 'point of inflexion' of the mass movement to break neoliberalism in Colombia, "from this point we unite, and the struggle goes up".
Solidarity for this united struggle came internationally through messages of support from Ecuador, Spain, from UNISON, War on Want, the TUC/Justice for Colombia and several individuals in Britain, and from delegations of ten US trade unionists as and the Colombia Solidarity Campaign.
The regional Public Defender, a state official akin to an Ombudsman, called a Public Hearing on 12th March. The government was invited but did not attend. Lots of young people from SENA, the apprentice education institution, arrived chanting and singing. An auditorium for 300 people was packed to overflowing, with several hundred more outside.
SINTRAEMCALI presented a full report, showing that EMCALI's biggest problem is the huge debt it is carrying. The corporation is a microcosm of the country as a whole, the minimum condition for viability is non-payment of corrupt contracts (the contract with Intergen is an Enron like scam) and renegotiation of the debt.
Colombia's army and police show no respect for the people. While the Hearing was taken place, they were stripping trade unionist body guards of their arms and filming the leaders. A special army roadblock was in place to harass the leaders afterwards. Human rights defender Berenice Celeyta was directly threatened by an army sergeant, "Go kill yourself!"
Everyone is now very concerned for Lucho Hernandez's life, his stand against Uribe is recognised as a psychological breakthrough against the climate of fear. The community respects SINTRAEMCALI. If the privatisation goes through it will be by trickery and violence.
Update: Speaking over the phone union President Luis "Lucho" Hernandez reported on the latest round of negotiations that took place at a military airbase near Cali on Monday, 24th March. The union offered to cut the workers benefits by 20 million pesos annually, as a sacrifice to save EMCALI corporation. But this offer was rejected by Uribe as being insufficient. "Uribe wants the workers to hand over all our rights, that is his price for not liquidating EMCALI. But once we have given up our rights, he will then privatise the corporation anyway", Lucho said.
The union is under intense pressure from all sections of the establishment. Threats against the union leaders and their families have not gone away, Lucho has had to move home once again.
Meantime the community is mobilising.
The state is closing in and before long the paramilitaries will have laid full seige. The union has contacts all over the city, and from varied sources it evaluates the situation thus:
All of this is in addition to the confrontation on 29th January, when the national police broke up SINTRAEMCALI’s rally with tear gas and explosive papas, home made grenades.