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The Committee for Fair Wages

PASO had the opportunity to accompany public university workers who staged a wildcat strike beginning on February 20, shutting down the National University accross the country including the main campus in Bogota. The Committee for Fair Wages that is leading this campaign democratically represents members of several unions (including Sintraunal and Sintraunicol) as well as a significant number of non-union workers. The second largest campus in Medellin joined the strike two weeks later. The Rector of the National University, already under fire in the national media for the misuse of public resources, had threatened to cancel the academic semester if the strike continued through Easter. Students and workers shut down the university for 28 days. After more than ten days of negotiations the Committee’s demands were met by the administration.

Universidad Nacional Feb 2013

Workers´ Demands:

1) Salaries equal to those of other public sector workers who make around 30% more than National University employees.

2) That newly subcontracted positions be returned to direct hires.

As a result of the general trend towards privatization of the public sector, security guards and custodians at the Bogota campus are now employed by private, third-party intermediary entities. However, Decree 2025 of 2012, passed within the scope of the Labor Action Plan between the US and Colombia, outlaws practices in which core workers are hired through unwanted intermediaries.

The Committee held daily marches and temporary blockades of the major highways next to the main campus of the Universidad Nacional in Bogota. Throughout the strike permanent encampments were set up in several campuses accross the country, while building were blockaded and access to university grounds controlled by security guards who supported the strike.

In Colombia. workers who employ this kind of strategy (nonviolent direct action) often become the target of anti-union violence at the hands of the armed forces or assassins hired by the private sector.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Victories For strike participants, the most important victory is that faith in collective action  has been restored among university workers in the most dangerous country in the world to be a union activist, and that workers now feel they have a voice in the national debate about public education and the trend towards privatization. Specific gains include the following: 1) A 2004 measure that allowed the Rector to appropriate career-track administrative positions and replace them with temporary workers of his personal choosing was declared null and void. 2) All such positions created since 2004 are to be returned to direct hires with permanent contracts. 3) A technical study will be carried out by representatives of the administration and workers’ bargaining committee to establish a reasonable raise to be applied in 2014. 4) All National University workers will receive a 1,200,000 peso bonus to be applied in 2013. 5) A lawsuit that declared the strike illegal will be withdrawn and retaliatory actions to punish workers for their participation in the committee/strike will not be taken. The student movement on the Bogota campus was also renewed as a result of this strike. In late 2011, National University students, high school students, unions, and the greater commuity organzized massive protests in opposition to an educational reform which would have further privatized higher education, ultimately resutling in a major victory in which the proposed reform was shelved. Since then students have become less active, but many groups re-activated as a result of the recent strike, as massive ralleys and public meetings were held between students and workers. According to the Committee, their victory would not have been possible without the support of the student body.

The Fight Continues 

tent viewMoving forward, the main challenge will be to make sure the university administration repects the collective bargain. Days after resuming their jobs, workers were approached by management with questionnaires designed to identify and/or intimidate strike leaders. The National Public Prosecutor recently made a statement to the press in which he demanded the names, positions, and home addresses of strike leaders. The threat of retaliation against strike organizers are very real and present in the minds of the workers.

This is a campaign deserving of international solidarity and support. Cutting-edge tactics (union and non-union public sector workers on strike in coalition with students groups and private-sector campus workers) are being used to demand a living wage for workers, a reversal of the privatization of university jobs, and rejuvenation of labor activity among National University workers who last went on strike 16 years ago. The collective agreement included raises and increased job security for all university workers, union and non-union alike, while a probable result of the victory will be the affiliation of new members to both unions involved. It is an example of workers and the community coming together to demand that their voices be heard and their rights respected, despite the possibility of violent retaliation, and provides a new model that can be used by workers in Colombia and internationally of how to fight for change – and win.

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