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From Alabama to Colombia
Coal company faces war crimes charge
Published Aug 2, 2007 1:01 AM
In a blow against transnational exploitation of workers and for North-South
worker solidarity, Drummond, an Alabama-based coal company, was put on trial in
federal court here, charged with the murder of labor union organizers at its
mines in Colombia.
In 2001 Valmore Lacarno Rodríguez and Víctor Hugo Orcasita Amaya were
murdered by a group of men, some wearing military uniforms. Lacarno and
Orcasita were president and vice-president of the union representing 3,000
miners, SINTRAMIENERGETICA. Shortly thereafter Gustavo Soler was murdered when
he became union president.
Rafael García, the former head of the Colombian intelligence department,
the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), made a sworn statement that
directly implicated Drummond in the murders. Under oath he stated he was an
eyewitness to a meeting where Augusto Jiménez, president of Drummond LTD
in Colombia, paid cash to members of the Self Defense Units of Colombia (AUC),
the paramilitaries—to assassinate the union leaders.
Colombia is the world’s deadliest country for union organizers. An
AFL-CIO report estimates that 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered there
since the mid-1980s, over 2,000 of them since 1991.
The Drummond deaths took place during a unionization struggle of many years in
which workers’ demands included an end to extremely dangerous work
conditions, low wages, 12-hour shifts and physical intimidation of union
Drummond operates the La Loma mine in Colombia, the world’s largest
open-pit coal mine. Workers there produce 25 million tons of coal a year. A
subsidiary of Drummond is also the largest U.S. producer of coke, a
coal-derived fuel necessary to steelmaking. (New York Times, July 13)
Originally based in the 1930s out of the coal fields around Jasper, Ala.,
Drummond was one of the largest coal producers in the U.S. until the 1990s. The
company moved its main mining operations to Colombia in 1993 to make higher
profits by paying workers far lower wages than those in its unionized U.S.
mines. The company is now one of the biggest foreign investors in the country
and maintains barracks for the Colombian military on its mine property in order
to “safeguard” its properties. (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 3,
The Birmingham trial, held from July 11-26, featured conflicting testimonies
from union organizers and company executives. Lawyers for the company attempted
to discredit Juan Aguas, with the Colombian energy workers’ union, by
accusing him of giving testimony against Drummond because he was receiving a
small stipend for living expenses from U.S. unions.
The lawyer challenged him, “You are doing this for money, right?”
Aguas answered with dignity, “No, for justice.” (Interview with
The United Steel Workers, along with the International Labor Rights Fund, filed
suit in 2001 against Drummond under the Alien Tort Act. Passed originally in
1789, the law gave victims of U.S. pirates in international waters or foreign
countries a legal right to sue their attackers in federal court.
In recent years activists have attempted to turn this law against transnational
corporations believed to be exploiting and terrorizing workers. Companies sued
under the act include Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum and Chiquita Brands
International. Executives with Chiquita recently admitted that its subsidiary
company was making monthly payments to paramilitaries in Colombia. Chiquita is
also being sued by the families of 144 people killed by paramilitaries in the
area where Chiquita workers harvest bananas. (AP, July 7)
The Drummond case was the first to come to trial in the U.S. court system, and
a victory in this case would have built momentum for other suits against other
transnationals, according to Beth Stephens, a specialist in the statute and law
professor at Rutgers University—Camden. (New York Times, July 13)
Birmingham U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre dealt activists a heavy blow when
she threw out the wrongful death segment of the case, claiming her court has no
jurisdiction. The case then went to trial on the claim that Drummond
participated in war crimes in that it colluded in murders sanctioned by the
state. (Birmingham News, Jun 21)
Drummond’s chief executive in Colombia, Augusto Jiménez, flatly
denied paying or making agreements with any paramilitary group. He said,
“Drummond is not part of the conflict.” (Birmingham News, July
International worker solidarity
The international anti-globalization movement of the past two decades has
established the fact that the vested interests of transnational corporations
are in direct conflict with workers organizing in every corner of the
There are also sworn affidavits by a number of witnesses, including some former
members of the paramilitaries, that document payments by Drummond for violent
intimidation of workers.
None of this information—which would establish Drummond’s active
role in “the conflict”—was allowed as testimony in U.S.
Nor was there testimony about Drummond’s current treatment of its Alabama
workers. On June 22, as pretrial motions were being heard about the case in
federal court in Birmingham, workers at the Drummond Shoal Creek mine had to be
evacuated because of methane gas buildup. The same mine was shut down in
February 2006 because methane ignited and exploded. Shoal Creek is
Alabama’s largest coal mine. (Birmingham News, June 22)
Drummond’s Alabama mines have had a history of fires, cave-ins and other
safety issues over the years. They were unionized by the United Mineworkers of
America, which issued a statement condemning the murders of Colombian trade
UMWA Vice President Jerry Jones said: “We strongly condemn these
assassinations of our trade union brothers. ... When Drummond chose to switch
many of its operations to Colombia, it did so knowing that country’s
hostile political climate and egregious human rights violations.”
International worker solidarity is sorely needed in Alabama, where non-U.S.
capital is moving in to exploit the work force, even as Southern-based
companies move to Mexico and Latin America for super profits. In Alabama
thousands work at three nonunionized major auto plants—Mercedes Benz,
Hyundai, and Honda—with a fourth major plant on the way. A giant German
steel corporation, ThyssenKrupp, has broken ground for a new plant in Mobile
that will generate 20,000 direct and indirect jobs. (al.com) Labor costs for
German firms are about 30 percent cheaper in Alabama than in Germany. (Cobb and
Stueck, “Globalization and the American South”)
On July 26, Drummond was found “not liable” for the murders of the
three Colombian trade union organizers, in a decision that the Birmingham News
characterized as a “defeat for labor” in efforts to hold U.S.
companies accountable for actions and treatment of workers internationally.
But, instead, with the reindustrialization of Alabama, could conditions be
developing for a revitalization of worker struggle there, and in solidarity
with workers internationally?
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