'The Colombian city of Santiago de Cali ground to a halt. Traffic jams could be seen in every direction. Workers, the local communities and supporters filled the city's streets to rally in support of the occupation'.
That was the eyewitness description received by Socialist Worker from the South American country of Colombia last week. Many people's image of Colombia is of a poverty-stricken Third World country. Yet in Cali, an industrial city of three million people, workers are leading a fight everyone in Britain would recognise. It is an inspirational struggle against privatisation of public services. Over 800 workers, men and women, are occupying the headquarters of the Emcali public utilities company in Cali. They took over the tower block building on Christmas Eve and have been inside since.
As well as the immediate aim of stopping privatisation, Mario Novelli writes from Cali, 'The struggle is transforming people's lives both inside and outside the occupation.' The occupation is defying threats from right wing paramilitary forces to assassinate union leaders and blow up the building. These are no idle threats in Colombia.
Some 160 trade unionists were assassinated by paramilitaries last year, and over 1,500 union activists have been murdered in the last ten years. The leader of the Cali occupation, Sintraemcali union president Alexander Lopez, has narrowly survived three assassination attempts. Emcali provides electricity, water and telephone services to Cali. In Colombia two thirds of people live in dire poverty while a rich elite monopolise wealth and power.
The government is in the pocket of big business, and wants to privatise Emcali and force up prices. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are demanding privatisation. Cali workers have drawn a line and said no. The Sintraemcali union is at the heart of the fight in Cali-it is much more than a simple trade union. Its president, Alexander Lopez, spoke at trade union conferences in Britain last year.
He explained that Sintraemcali links workers to community organisations across the city, giving it a key role in wider social struggles. The privatisation drive is linked to the US-backed Plan Colombia, a massive military aid package. The plan is about smashing guerrilla forces which are fighting a civil war in the countryside, and crushing resistance by workers and the poor. Multinationals are the biggest backers of the plan and of the privatisation drive. Heading the list is British-based oil giant BP.
TUC general secretary John Monks and other top trade union leaders joined solidarity protests with the Cali worker occupation outside the Colombian embassy in London last Friday.
Mario Novelli travelled from Britain's Colombia Solidarity Campaign to join the Cali occupation. His account gives a flavour of the struggle, and of how wider questions are raised within it. 'On the right hand side of the Emcali building is a huge makeshift kitchen feeding the hundreds of occupying workers. Across the road from this is a makeshift stage where community leaders, activists and sympathisers make their speeches. On some days there have been 20,000 supporters outside. Next to the stage and all around the square the walls are adorned with colourful union and social organisation banners. Inside I get a guided tour. I am taken first to the barakeros [toughest ones]. They have spent the last 22 days sleeping on the roof in a makeshift tent ensuring that the police don't storm the building from the roof. We talk of Argentina, of the war in Afghanistan, and where the cracks in the system are appearing. At 9am in the local university a conference was held by the university workers' union on 'The crisis in Argentina and its effect on Colombia: the Emcali occupation'.'
The Cali occupation began three days after the uprising in Argentina. A video link is established between the occupation and the university conference. 'We watched a radical economist explain the background to the Argentinian crisis, the role of the World Bank and IMF, and the rebirth of the popular movement. Scores of us sat huddled in front of the computer, shouting and waving support to the students and workers in the auditorium. In the newly formed women's group they are challenging the sexism that exists in the union and beyond. 'We are in the frontline of the struggle and male attitudes inside the occupation are changing towards us. When we leave we want to change the attitude of those outside as well,' says Aydee.'
Aydee explains how inside the occupation, 'We have computer classes and English classes, and are organising a cleaning party jointly with the men. Chant 'We are also circulating the words of the Internationale and the union anthem to every floor so that everyone can learn the songs. We will have a competition with a prize for the floor that sings them best!' 'Outside', says Mario, 'people are gathered around the stage watching a dance band from the poorest district in the city and a local rap band chant their tribute to social protest. Each day the union and the strike command produce documents, posters and leaflets to be distributed to people across the city's poorest neighbourhood. This is strengthened by public meetings across the city, demonstrations and public assemblies.'
Send urgently needed donations (payable to Colombia Solidarity Campaign-write Sintraemcali on the back of cheques) to CSC, PO Box 8446, London N17 6NZ. Email [email protected] or phone 07950 923448.
Send messages of support to Sintraemcali at www.sintraemcali.com or the address above.