This remarkable article appeared in the 6th January 2002 edition of El Pais. For years this newspaper has assumed a hostile attitude to SINTRAEMCALI and the interests of the workers in saving the corporation.
The occupation of the Municipal Corporation building had been carefully prepared three months in advance. Not one detail was left to chance.
Right in the middle of the day on 25th December members of the Executive Committee of SINTRAEMCALI, the EMCALI Workers Union drove into all the internal parking spaces of the CAM tower. Although it was a strange thing to do, it did not seem that out of the ordinary. Under the terms of the collective agreement all the trade union leaders have free access to all workplaces in the corporation, at any time of day or night. That’s why the security guards responsible for guarding the building let them enter without great difficulties, even though it was Christmas Day. Almost immediately hundreds of workers from the Navarro, Río Cali, Río Cauca, Ptar, Diesel I and II, Colón, San Fernando and Versalles plants started beating on the entrance doors. The guards were practically relieved of their posts and the workers assumed control of the building. That is how the occupation started of EMCALI administrative building, which is now completed thirteen days.
The trade unions had been preparing to take over several of the corporation’s most important work places. However, it was learnt on 24th December that the Army had reinforced its guard over the main plants, so then the administrative centre became the only target.
The arrival early on Christmas Eve of the first lorry full of soldiers at the Puerto Mallarino water processing plant indicated to the workers on shift that something was afoot. The contingency plan worked out three months previously by the union to respond to whatever government decision on the future of the corporation was immediately enacted. Every one of the members had full knowledge of what they had to do in this type of situation: assume control of entry points, activate the internal communications system and guarantee a permanent presence in the places and sectors of greatest vulnerability at each one of the plants. But the Army moved quickly to control all the access points to the plants.
Union President Alexander López’s mobile phone didn’t stop ringing in the morningof 24th December. Within 20 minutes he had received a situation report from all of the plants. The only area there was no report from was EMCALI’s administrative centre, the CAM tower. Curiously, there was no military presence there, despite the concerns of the Municipal Administration and that it was known that something was going on. A senior official in the city council was overheard saying, "It’s not our problem. If the Government wants to militarise the CAM tower, then they have to do it, at the end of the day EMCALI is in their hands".
So the union quickly changed tack. "We’ll be fucked if we don’t act quickly", Alexander López said to the other nine members of SINTRAEMCALI’s executive. At that moment, 1.00pm on 24th December, the union and the Municipal Administration were notified of the appointment of Oscar Halim Revéiz, replacing Juan Manuel Pulido as emergency Managing Director of the corporation.
The tasks were agreed and the responsibilities distributed under great secrecy. Each one of the union leaders was commissioned to contact the stoppage committees and put the plan into action. The occupation was to go ahead.
At the moment of taking the building, Juan Manuel Pulido was arriving from Popayán where he had spent Christmas night. The mayor, Jhon Maro Rodríguez, who the Superintendent was to accuse of initiating the occupation, was elsewhere getting ready to launch the horse parade that opens the Cali Festival.
At the two places, the EMCALI building and the Corporation Centre, from where the horsemen start the procession, there was general tension. Meanwhile inside the EMCALI tower the trade unionists were assuming positions, in readiness to prevent any attempt by the Security Forces to dislodge them. In the far north of the city the riders were readying their horses for the parade.
Once in possession of the building, the trade unionists spread out to each of the 17 floors, but in such a way as to keep the greatest number of people at the access points. They were far away from what was happening in the rest of the city, the opening of the year’s biggest festival.
As soon as he was notified of the incursion Heliodoro Alfonso Roa, Commander of the Metropolitan Police, ordered the few men he had at his disposal – the great majority were out policing the horse parade – to go to the CAM tower occupation. He immediately communicated the news to the Mayor.
Already harangues against the National Government could be heard emerging from inside the headquarters of the Municipal Corporation. The propaganda committee hung pendant banners down the face of the building, with posters and placards denouncing the privatisation of the corporation.
The first police to arrive at the scene did not understand what was going on. Who would think of occupying a public building on the opening day of the Cali Festival? Nonetheless they mounted a security cordon and isolated the zone. Even more so when other groups of workers began to gather on Second Avenue North, in front of the CAM tower. In the north of the city the Mayor was still attending the launch of the horse parade, as were hundreds of other caleños.
By now the slogans that were being chanted out from windows on the upper floors were receiving responses from the street. This increased the bewilderment amongst passing caleños, just what was going on here, and on Christmas Day? Some, remembering the scenes of protest from Argentina that they had seen on television, supposed that it was a protest against unemployment.
A few yards away, in Correo Square, some hundreds of citizens were contending with each other to get the best place to watch the horse parade pass by. And only a very few were aware that something odd was going on in front of the CAM tower, where some skirmishes were taking place between the building’s occupants and the police. The commander of the Metropolitan Police, meanwhile, was awaiting instructions from the Mayor as to how to proceed with protesters occupying the administrative headquarters of the most important public service corporation in the south west of the country.
Towards 6.00pm the Mayor arrived at the scene and asked to meet with the union’s leaders. López, Hernández and other co-ordinators of the occupation authorised the entry of theMayor and a group of journalists. For the first time in many months Jhon Maro Rodríguez walked without bodyguards. After a 20 minute meeting in the Managing Director’s room, now occupied by the workers, the mayor abandoned the building without letting out a word. The occupation of the building was not going to be withdrawn.
Inside the EMCALI tower fear and uncertainty were growing because of a possible eviction by the Police. There was speculation that the Military Police would intervene, a unit specialising in this type of public order situation.
That night, the first of twelve that have passed up to now, the guards were doubled at the doors giving access to the building, and in the basements and the CAM terrace. Other teams were dispatched to the twelfth, thirteenth and fifteenth floors where there are communication passages connected to the Mayor’s building.
Meanwhile a delegation designated by the Mayor, consisting of the Secretary of Government Jorge Iván Ospina, the ombudsman Fernando Montoya, the People’s Defender Hernando Toro, and the Regional Prosecutor Gloria Edith Ramírez tried to persuade the trade unionists to leave the building. They only reached an agreement that the Security Forces would not be allowed to enter. Almost nobody slept that first night, which for many was their first experience of being in an occupation. Others had already participated in the one that was carried out in 1999 to demand the reunification of the corporation.
On 26th December the zone was threatened by strong control of the authorities. Public access to the Municipal Adminstration offices was totally restricted. In front of the CAM tower some officials from EMCALI and the Municipality dstared to gather. The slogans returned. Only now they were mixed with the music of Carlos Prueba and Mercedes Sosa, and being relayed through sound equipment.
At 6.00am the toilet and health committee started its rounds of each of the 17 stories, checking on the condition of their comrades in struggle. On the second day a worker had to be evacuated by Red Cross because he had difficulty in breathing. By 9.00am everyone must be washed and ready to take part in the day’s activities. For this the showers that exist in the bathrooms of some offices were used. For the men’s bathing, the water workers set up a system to shower groups at a time.
Five workers were commissioned to prepare food that at 7.30am, 12.30pm and 6.00pm is brought into the building, with oversight from the Police and checked by the ombudsman’s staff. On 29th December six cartridges for a 38 revolver were discovered hidden in the bread.
A great big stove – "the eating house of EMCALI" – was set up next to the energy plant on one of the sides of the CAM building. This is where the team of five prepare the food. A pig that was slaughtered in the Navarro plant made up part of the menu.
On the last night of the year the occupants of the EMCALI building gathered around the windows to look out onto Second Avenue North, to join in the act of solidarity organised by their friends and families to back the occupation. That was how they celebrated the New Year. As far as that day was concerned, 31st December, the vent was well attended: more than two thousand people met in front of the CAM. The final speech, one of the most emotional, was given by ex-managing Director Juan Manuel Pulido.
At 12.00pm the National Anthem and SINTRAEMCALI’s song were played, managing to move even the security police. And as though all were in agreement, there was an immense and prolonged silence. "Happy New Year! Viva SINTRAEMCALI!" called the announcer over the sound system. Only a few responded, for all the others had a lump in their throat and were silently wiping away the tears that, in the emotion of the moment, they could not hold back.
The arrival of 2002 saw the occupation moving forward. Even though all the bustle of the year end had not allowed much advance in the search for solutions in the new conjuncture confronting the corporation. Inside the occupation everything went on as normal. Those responsible for security and guarding the building’s doors kept taking their shifts every two hours. During the day, in every one of the floors, there were courses on trade unionism, motivation and even systems with the aim of keeping the personnel occupied. In each storey clean floors in some offices and desks are available for sleeping on, which the men and women do separately.
At 10.00pm the health commission does the same round as in the morning, this time to make sure that everyone is sleeping.
With this daily life, and some negotiations in which neither of the parties back down, is how the occupation has already passed thirteen days inside the Cali Municipal Corporation EMCALI building.
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