•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

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. (aflcio.org/issues/jobseconomy/globaleconomy/)

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 officials.

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, 2006)

‘For justice’

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 Chapin Gray)

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 23)

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 globe.

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. federal court.

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 unionists.

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.” (umwa.org)

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?