Colombia: strikes halt US coal giant Drummond

Indefinite strikes brought coal mining operations of Alabama-based multinational Drummond Co to a halt on July 23 in the north of Colombia, putting further pressure on the country’s economy amid a growing wave of labor actions. After negotiations failed between the Sintramienergetica union and Drummond over wage increases, union workers declared an indefinite end to operations. The strike threatens a halt to nearly all production in the world’s fourth coal-producing nation. Two companies, Drummond and Cerrejon, account for 85% of Colombia’s coal industry. If Cerrejon, whose union went on strike earlier this year, also declares a halt to operations, Colombia’s GDP growth could fall significantly. President Juan Manuel Santos has said the strikes could “damage the entire world,” and that “no one wins because every day that passes [there are] forgone royalties and foregone incomes that for the most part go to social investment.” (Colombia Reports, July 24)

Colombian students said July 22 they will join truckers, health workers, coffee farmers and miners in a planned national strike in August. The students of the National University, Colombia’s largest public university with campuses in seven cities, will walk out on Aug. 19 over alleged broken government promises over budgets and the appointment of a rector.

The wave of strikes began in June when campesinos in the northeastern region of Catatumbo Valley laid down work, took to the streets and eventually blocked roads and clashed with security forces over demands for more autonomy and the suspension of coca eradication programs while coca farmers are not offered alternative income to sustain their families. The violence between police and farmers led to the death of four protesters and was condemned by the United Nations.

The campesinos were joined earlier this month by small-scale “artisanal” miners, who charge that the government’s criminalization of informal mining only favors multinational mining companies. In clashes with police that followed the miners’ strike in Risaralda department, two miners were killed. Clashes also took place in the departments of Valle del Cauca and Antioquia. Major roads through Caldas, Chocó and other departments were also blocked. Santos offered to dialogue with the independent miners, but also warned: “I am not going to allow any of the strikes to block even a single road.” He tweeted that he will tolerate protests, “but violence no, terrorism no.”

Meanwhile, cafeteros, or independent coffee growers, announced that they will return to the streets to demand that promised government aid for the sector be delivered. Nearly 100 thousand coffee growers took to the streets earlier this year demanding compensation for losses due to low coffee prices and disappointing harvests.

And Colombia’s truckers—who have long been complaining about high fuel prices and freight tolls—announced that they, too, will join the strikes in August, also claiming the government failed to keep promises made to end a strike earlier this year.

The FARC guerilla movement has expressed their support for the strikers, even offering to arm the striking peasants in Catatumbo to defend themselves against police. This proposal was rejected by the campesinos. 

Roadblocks have now affected 18 of Colombia’s 34 departments, the elite anti-riot unit ESMAD has been repeatedly mobilized, and scores have been arrested.  (Colombia Reports, July 23; La Mañana, Neuquén, Argentina, TeleSur, July 19; Colombia Reports, July 18)

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