Thursday, 6 December 2012

This Day in the History of the International Labour Movement

December 6, 1928

On this date in history, the Santa Marta Massacre (or “Banana Massacre”) occurred. Once hugely important, the Colombian city of Santa Marta lost much of its importance during the Colonial era to the nearby port city of Cartagena. In the 20th Century, Santa Marta was given a boost by the export of coal and bananas. When industrial unrest came to Santa Marta, the government was resolved to force a return to work. Workers for the United Fruit Company had been on strike to secure better pay working conditions when the army was sent in to end the strike. Troops opened fire and many workers were massacred. The exact number of workers who died is unknown[1]. A fictionalized account of this event appears in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and remains impressed in the minds of the Colombian public[2].

The Santa Marta Massacre showcases the hostility that can exist between workers and employers and of the terrible results that such hostilities may bring if there is a significant power imbalance. Though the events in Santa Marta occurred in 1928, more recent events provide a sad commentary that things may not have changed much over the past 80 odd years. Testament to that discouraging thought is the execution of Oscar Soto Polo. Soto was the local president of the National Union of Beverage Workers. On June 21, 2001 he was fatally shot in the head whilst walking home with his eight-year-old daughter.

Soto was the 62nd Colombian labour activist to be killed in 2001. Following his death, labour officials and activists continued to be murdered. From 1991 to 2001, over 1,500 labour officials and activists were murdered, making them Colombia’s most endangered group of civilians. The unions assert that independently owned bottlers hired by Coca-Cola in Colombia were behind the executions of Soto and other labour activists. The union, with the support of the United Steelworkers of America, and the International Labor Rights Fund filed suit in a Miami district court against the Coca-Cola Company.  While Coca-Cola Co. vehemently denied any involvement in the killings or in the actions of the independently owned bottlers, one thing that is clear is that unionists were living under threat of death.

The threats labour officials and activists faced on a daily basis impinged their ability to effectively carry out their activities. At the time of his execution, Soto’s union was attempting to negotiate a pay raise of anywhere from 17% to 22%. Soto was involved in the negotiations. Far from the raise desired by the union, the company offered 6.5%. Shortly before Polo’s murder there was a lull in negotiations. Two weeks after Soto was murdered the negotiations resumed. The union settled for an 8.5% pay raise[3].

Terrorizing labour activists is not limited to Colombia. In many parts of the world trade unionists fight for their rights under constant threat of death. Organized labour has a common unifying cause: the protection of workers’ rights and dignity. These events provide a stark reminder of the importance of labour rights and the sacrifices brave union members the world over have made to protect and improve work conditions. Whether the massacres in 1928 or the executions in 2001, nothing can stop organized labour from fighting for what’s right. While we mourn the loss of those murdered in their struggle to advance labour rights, we are deeply thankful that such people have existed and continue to exist across the globe.

[3] Peter Katel, “Under the Gun: Execution-style Killings have Colombia’s Trade-Union Activists Running Scared” (Time Magazine, International Edition, August 23, 2001). Online:

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