Carlos Rodríguez took office in a crucial moment for the workers’ movement and for a country struggling in the middle of a war, the loss of sovereignty and the exclusion of its people.
He was interviewed at the end of 2002 by IUF Latin American regional secretary Gerardo Iglesias.
What is your evaluation of the CUT electoral process?
The Union has 550 thousand members, 50 percent of which are teachers; consequently the electoral forces are pretty unbalanced. A teacher may have 250 thousand voters, while some trade unions only have 200 or 300 members. I was on a list which was voted in 241 trade unions, and the second list in 26 trade unions. This proves the concentration of votes within the teaching profession.
How many trade unions form the CUT?
There are 746 trade unions affiliated to the CUT. We intend to implement the resolutions approved by the CUT Congress, that is to go from 746 trade unions to 18 larger trade unions grouped by industrial sector. We have a one-million-member goal, taking into account the diversity of labor relations found.
What percentage of members cast their vote?
Fifty-six per cent of our members voted.
Is the CUT the largest workers’ union in Colombia?
It is; the CUT has 550 thousand members, the second largest union is the CGTD with 129 thousand, whereas the third one is the CTC with 52 thousand members. In total we have approximately 730 thousand unionized workers, inserted in an economically active population of almost 9 million people.
One of the shortages of the union movement in Colombia is its limited presence in the private sector.
That is a reality resulting from labor streamlining. Most Colombian companies have flexible contracts, with no binding Labor Law. When workers join their union, their 30-day or 2-month-long contracts of employment may not be renewed. Moreover, the new rated work fashion prevents private sector workers from unionizing.
You become the president of CUT at a time when your country is going through serious economic and social hardship.
Indeed. Unemployment in Colombia is extremely severe, official figures report 3.5 million unemployed and the same number of underemployed. The report says 20 million people live in poverty and 9 million below the line of poverty. Gross Domestic Product has had a 1.5% increase, there is a 2.3% fiscal deficit and no possible reactivation of the economy can be foreseen.
Likewise, Colombia imports 8 million tons of food, in detriment of the national agribusiness. Peasants and rural workers may be doing an effort to plant and grow, but this becomes futile when at the same time the government imports food and pushes the national production sector to an economic collapse. Indiscriminate opening to imports has ruined our own production; over the past 10 years 30 thousand companies have closed down. That is the reason why we are deeply interested in signing an agreement with the business sector to defend our national industry, to introduce protection mechanisms leading to the reactivation of the rural and food production sectors.
To all this, a senseless war adds up with the sole result of Colombian roads covered with graveyards. There is a lack of common sense in the insurgent, whose exclusive language is:War. There are also violent sectors within business groups and the government itself who do not believe dialog is the proper way to solve conflicts.
Besides, our education system is a disgrace; development plans go along one way and the education system goes the opposite way. In some places like El Tolima where agribusiness and technical training should be encouraged, we find that most degrees are academically oriented. It is a sign that a complete reorganization of the education system is required. Bearing all difficulties in mind, we are going to stress the need of new labor relations when we meet with the business sector. We will insist on the government using dialog as a mechanism to find solutions to our national problems. We believe there should be a National Agreement, which should almost certainly lead us to an emergency plan.
Immediately after you took office at the CUT there was some sort of offensive campaign against yourself and against the majority sector.
Well, it was to be expected, because their practices and behavior have not been democratic. We should remember the 4th CSTC Congress (Colombian Federation of Workers’ Unions), when those who condemn us expelled the minority sector and excluded them from all positions. We believe democracy is a system where the opposition has its own space, where minority sectors have a voice in discussions and are allowed criticism as well. The terms of the document released in the Internet have a harmful intention, they are mischievous in order to place present CUT leaders in the public eye. We are even labeled as supporters of Uribe. But this is no deterrent to us, we are not apprehensive of possible coincidences with the government and we may also coincide with some formulation by the insurgent. Union independence means we may coincide with different sectors, but we have independence from the government, the employers, the Church and the political parties.
Maybe a lot of people interpret negotiation as relinquishment and weakness.
No doubt about that, but the CUT’s purpose is a negotiated political solution to the armed conflict. Even if we face the highest confrontation, we should negotiate, we should talk.
Finally, your message for the international labor movement.
I must first express my recognition towards the IUF for their support, and may I fraternally suggest they continue with their extremely needed help. We are going to call all Global Union Federations to achieve joint assistance in our training and education efforts and their constant solidarity.