Friday, 18th January, 2002
There are definitely some advantages to be gained from taking control of the Central Administration of EMCALI, and one of the main ones is communication. Yesterday was a day of solidarity, and the videoconference was the new tool in the hands of the workers movement.
At 9.00 am in the Universidad del Valle, the local state university, a conference was held by SINTRAUNICOL, the university workers union, on the “Crisis in Argentina, and its effects on Colombia: The Taking of the EMCALI Tower”. Inside the occupation we watched a radical economist from the National University in Colombia, as he explained the background to the crisis, the role of the World Bank and the IMF, and the rebirth of the popular movement in Argentina. Scores of us sat huddled in front of the computer, occasionally waving and shouting support to the students and workers that squeezed into the auditorium. At 11.00 am Alexander, the president, began his speech. He talked of the occupation, of the unity necessary between students and workers, and of the strong bonds between those in the University who had fought off for several years its privatization, and of SINTRAEMCALI. When the students occupied their central administration two years ago, Alexander joined them inside.
At 12.00 am we had a conference with the T.U.C in Britain, with leaders of the GMB, UNISON, ASLEF, FBU, Ken Cameron, and Simon Steynes from the International Department of the T.U.C. Alexander explained the long struggle of SINTRAEMCALI, which since 1994 had fought off 16 attempts to privatize EMCALI E.I.C.E, and the price they had paid: the murders, the assassinations attempts and the forced exile of many workers.
The demands of the union were simple, he said. “We are not fighting for higher wages, or better conditions. Quite the opposite, we are happy to work overtime for free to do what we can to defend the company”. The demands were an stop the government policy of privatization, no price increases for the poorest sections of the Cali community, and an end to the impunity from prosecution of the corrupt officials who have siphoned off money from the company for years. In order to gain these demands they were prepared to do whatever they had to, including giving up their own lives. The British trade unionists one by one sent their messages of solidarity, and support, and the cry from Simon Steynes was “You are not alone”.
The meeting produced some truly positive results, which yet again highlights that real international solidarity can be built through realistic goals and hard work. The union leaders agreed to support a demonstration outside the Colombian Embassy in London on the 25th of January, that they would write and issue statements of solidarity and support and do what they could to pressure both the British government and the Colombian government to prevent a military solution to the occupation. Finally they agreed to raise and send money to SINTRAEMCALI to help to sustain the struggle. The union has spent over fifty thousand pounds in the 23 days of occupation, and faces bankruptcy when it ends. All the meetings, all the food for the workers, all the videoconferences, all the transport costs, legal fees, and related expenses have drained everything that the union has. When the meeting finished and the screen went blank we all embraced, and felt the presence of international solidarity in the room. We were not alone.
In the afternoon from the poorest communities in the city a mass of humanity descended on the square outside the tower, gathering in defence of the company, shouting slogans and waving banners and flags. The Strike Command leaders spoke from the stage and Alexander from the roof of the tower. From there the march began, and I left the building, through the police checkpoint, and merged into the crowd. The streets again were in the hands of the people, and the momentum of the struggle locally, nationally and internationally is gathering pace.