Tuesday, August 25, 1987 began like any other day for Luis Felipe Vélez, president of the teachers union of Antioquia, Colombia’s most populous state. Shortly after 7 AM, Velez said goodbye to his wife and three young children and headed to the union’s office in downtown Medellín.
But as the thirty-three-year-old was about to enter the modest adobe-brick building, two assassins leapt out of a green Mazda 626 and opened fire, riddling his body with bullets. Velez died two hours later.
Word spread quickly among human rights activists, teachers, and Vélez’s colleagues in the Association of School Teachers of Antioquia, and by 5 PM a large crowd had gathered at the union office for a vigil.
Among the throng were Hector Abad Gomez and Leonardo Betancur, two well-known human rights leaders. As Gomez and Betancur entered the union office, two men jumped off a motorcycle and walked toward the crowd. One shot Gomez six times; the other chased Betancur into the office and killed him.
It was a bloody day in a bloody period. During the 1980s and ’90s, assassinations were an everyday reality for union and human rights activists in Colombia. And violence, while on the wane, continues to this day.
According to Colombia’s National Union School (ENS), more than 1,000 teacher union leaders were killed between 1977 and 2014 — the equivalent of 7,000 teacher union leaders being murdered in the US. The ENS has also documented over 14,000 incidents of violence against labor activists, ranging from assassinations to beatings, kidnappings, and torture. The perpetrators have only been brought to justice in 1 percent of the cases.
This campaign of intimidation and murder (in combination with neoliberal restructuring) has taken a toll on Colombia’s labor movement. Union membership is 4.4 percent of the national workforce today, down from 17 percent three decades ago.
As the movement has shrunk, public educators have become increasingly important. Teachers in Colombia now make up about half of the membership of the Central Union of Workers, Colombia’s main federation of unions.
And they have one more thing in common with teacher unionists in the US: they’re fighting neoliberal reforms tooth and nail.
Global Front Lines
This past December, during a long visit to Colombia to study Spanish and learn about the situation in the country, I walked into the same teachers union office where Vélez was assassinated. On the wall hung portraits of Vélez and the sixty-six other teacher union leaders in Antioquia murdered since 1977. Above the pictures, a wooden sign read (in Spanish): “Here we are and here we will be forever in the heat of the struggle in defense of human rights.”
Seeing the dozens of portraits of slain teachers was chilling, a stark contrast to the congratulatory plaques lining the office walls at my own union, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.
I had been aware of the danger facing private-sector union activists in Colombia — especially those organizing against multinational sugar cane, banana, and mining companies — but the pictures drove home the importance of public-sector workers to the struggle for justice and human rights in Colombia. Elites in the country literally had them gunned down to try to weaken popular resistance.
While the situation outside Columbia is less dangerous, public-sector unionists across the world have emerged as a bulwark against efforts to eviscerate public services. From Chicago to Colombia, teachers have leveraged their position in society to fight the privatization and disinvestment national governments and international institutions are pushing.
Teachers and schools are in nearly every town and city in the world. Urban and rural teachers are in daily contact with impoverished and disenfranchised communities. And despite anti-union attacks and growing privatization, teacher unions remain among the largest in the world. (In the United States, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have some 4.5 million members, making K-12 public education one of the country’s most unionized sectors.)
Educational International, the global federation of teacher unions, has launched an international campaign against the commodification of education. But much more is needed.
To be successful, teacher unions must take our struggle beyond the schoolhouse door and fight for more than just the rights of our members. We must struggle for a more genuine democracy, a more expansive social justice.
Colombian teachers, many of whom have given their lives, are on the front lines of this struggle.
Culture of Fear
Though separated by thousands of miles, my conversations with teachers and union activists in Colombia underlined the commonality of our struggles.
Teachers from Colombia and the US alike decry the growing emphasis on standardized testing, the tendency to blame teachers for not solving problems created by pervasive poverty, the top-down commands that devalue teaching as a profession, and the narrowing of the curriculum, which edges out all-important issues such as social justice and critical thinking. They object to corporate reforms that privilege private schools and defund public education — reforms that, at their heart, represent an attack on democratic rights.
“We are fighting privatization of our public schools,” said John Avila, a former social studies teacher and current head of research for Colombia’s Federation of Educators (FECODE) in Bogotá. “The neoliberal agenda . . . is strong in Colombia.”
Last spring, the federation led a fifteen-day national strike that focused on two issues — meager pay and a new teacher evaluation system that consisted of a single, written test. The union made gains on both, winning a 12 percent pay increase over three years and a more sophisticated evaluation system that does not include a written test.
Indeed, despite right-wing violence and a culture of fear, despite limits on organizing, despite the prohibition of agency fees, Colombian educators have persevered — roughly 70 percent of the country’s teachers are union members.
The pending peace accord between Colombia’s government and leftist guerrillas is raising hopes that teacher unions will be able to bring even more people into their ranks. As Carlos Lotero — longtime labor leader and now the director general of the National Union School — put it: “It’s a lot easier to organize for worker rights if leaders are not routinely murdered.”
Two decades ago, peace talks between the government and the guerillas led to the formation of the Patriotic Union, a left political party. But both the Patriotic Union and the peace process collapsed when the ruling oligarchy and paramilitaries launched a campaign against the nascent party. According to the House of Memory in Medellín, nearly five thousand members of the new party were “assassinated, disappeared, or massacred” between 1984 and 1997.
Today, the peace process enjoys much broader support and is attracting more international scrutiny. The negotiations began in 2012 in Havana, Cuba and a tentative pact was announced in September 2015. The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continue to make progress on the details of a final peace agreement, although they did not complete the accord by the hoped-for deadline of March 23. Their intention is to have an agreement soon, followed by a referendum in October.
Every educator and teacher union leader I spoke with supported the peace process, in the hopes that it it will rein in paramilitary death squads and provide space for organizing and social transformation.
As the peace process in Colombia moves forward, the unions have developed a broad agenda to fight for worker rights. And because of Washington’s continued involvement in the country, Colombian union activists say the solidarity of US progressives and unions is essential.
Lotero spoke in particular about provisions in the US-Colombia free-trade agreement, which was signed in 2011. Because of pressure from the US and Colombian labor movements, the pact included a Labor Action Plan intended to safeguard worker rights. Now Colombian unions are fighting to make sure that language is put into practice.
Provisions of the Labor Action Plan include: establishing a ministry of labor, ending subcontracting designed to prevent unionization, opening an office of the International Labor Organization in Colombia, and changing legal codes to expand and enforce basic labor laws.
The plan also calls for measures to prosecute perpetrators of anti-labor violence and increase protection for activists, including government funding for bodyguards and armored cars. Intimidation is an ongoing concern. According to the US Department of Labor, “threats against labor leaders and activists have increased significantly, in the form of text messages, phone calls, letters, emails and other forms.”
But as I spoke with teachers and union leaders in Colombia, I was struck by their matter-of-fact perseverance — a persistence examined in a book that all union activists in Medellín seem to have read: Tirándole libros a las balas, or Throwing Books at Bullets. The book chronicles the history of violence against teachers in Antioquia from 1978 to 2008.
Fernando Ospina, president of the Antioquia teachers union, explained the title’s significance.
“Teacher unions have been targeted by violence and bullets,” Ospina said. “Our response has been with education, social research, and social justice. They shoot bullets. We throw books.”