Some 10,000 direct and indirect employees of US-based Drummond Ltd. returned to regular activities at the multinational coal giant’s primary production and shipping sites in Colombia starting Monday, after a controversial ruling by a government arbitration tribunal brought a temporary end to nearly two months of labor strikes.
On Friday, an official arbitration tribunal convened by the Colombian Ministry of Labor gave Drummond’s largest labor union (SINTRAMINERGETICA) 72 hours to end ongoing work stoppages, which shutdown production at mines such as the La Loma and El Descanso open-pit coal sites for over 50 days.
Union vice-President Edgar Muñoz told Colombia Reports that workers have decided to comply with the request out of a “respect for official authority”, but that SINTRAMINERGETICA is already arming a legal response to what he called a “direct attack on Colombian collective bargaining and protest rights”.
The tribunal’s ruling, said Muñoz, “is the latest in a series of troubling irregularities and gross violations of labor rights intended to strip [SINTRAMINERGETICA], and by extension unions across Colombia, of their most basic legal protections and bargaining power”.
The immediate controversy began in early September, when a companywide vote was held to end the strike and send the matter to adjudication. Ministry of Labor officials presided over the vote, tallying 2,499 votes in favor of returning to work, representing just over the 50% of workers necessary to implement the tribunal, which eventually ordered the official end to the strike.
According to union leaders, the vote was corrupt, with an inaccurately low threshold for passage — the Ministry of Labor’s statistic for total Drummond employees was reportedly more than 50 workers short of the company’s own figures — and tampered vote counts titling the balance in favor of lifting the strike. The union, however, was against the vote in principle from before it was even held.
“The only party that can vote to end the strike,” said Muñoz, “is the labor body that called it.”
SINTRAMINERGETICA claims to represent some 2,900 workers, over half of Drummond’s total direct workforce in Colombia. Labor leaders insist their members did not defect en masse, as the vote counts suggest they did, but say that the vote is invalid regardless.
“As the majority labor body [for Drummond Limited}, SINTRAMINERGETICA has the sole authority to end an official strike, whether through signing an agreement with the company, or voting to go back to work. The authority to call a strike is the same as the authority to end it. Only through a twisted interpretation of the collective bargaining act could anyone say any different.”
SINTRAMINERGETICA’s own internal votes have repeatedly approved the continuation of strike efforts, and rejected the company’s various offers, the latest of which included a 4.5% pay raise for all employees and a one-time bonus of $3,7000 per person, but fell short of the workers’ demands for 9% incremental pay hikes and the implementation of widespread benefits programs.
MORE: Drummond makes final offer to striking workers
Muñoz says that even if the recent Ministry of Labor vote counts are accurate, they are still legally meaningless, because they were taken outside of official union mechanisms.
According to the Ministry of Labor’s report, just over half of Drummond’s direct workforce participated in the vote. Union members, said Muñoz, “did not vote in a process they knew was not legitimate.”
Most of the workers who voted, he explained, either do not belong to any labor union, or pertain to ones formed in the past several years by the company itself.
“[The other unions] exist for exactly these type of purposes, to undermine legitimate labor organizing. The vote represents the desires of those who do whatever the company tells them to, and the administrators who were never part of the strike to begin with. How can that be valid?”
Labor leaders feel the government, dealing with a growing tide of labor and social unrest throughout the country, has used the Drummond strikes as a “vehicle to transform the law” and “establish precedents that erase labor rights”.
“[The government’s] interests are the same as the company’s,” said Muñoz, “both because of the obvious financial incentives, and the danger posed by social organizing.”
Strikes have cost Drummond Limited well over $250 million in lost production and unearned benefits payouts, according to company estimates. The Colombian government, meanwhile, has been deprived of an estimated 10% of its total annual mining royalties from national mining strikes, including $2 million a day in unpaid taxes and royalty payments from the Drummond strikes alone.
The greater economic impact on the country is more difficult to calculate, but Drummond’s mines account for roughly one-third of Colombia’s coal exports, and economists have previously predicted that labor unrest in the Colombian mining sector, and the coal mining sector in particular, could have serious impacts on the country’s overall growth.
MORE: Strikes take serious hit on coal industry, national GDP
No estimates have yet been released as to when Drummond’s operations will return to full function. As per the tribunal’s ruling, workers have returned to regular activities, under the conditions outlined in the existing collective bargaining agreement, while labor leaders launch a legal response to Friday’s decision.
The ruling, spelled out in Resolution 3256 of 2013, addresses the unions’ claims, and rules that the order ending the strikes does not “violate the constitutional rights” of the workers and that the ministry’s involvement “was not illegal”, as the workers believe it was. The ruling also provides room for appeal, presumably the union’s next recourse.
Representatives from the Ministry of Labor declined to comment on the Ministry’s behavior, or the tribunal’s ruling.
- Interview with Edgar Muñoz
- Resolution 3256
- Trabajadores de la Drummond retoman progresivamente sus labores (Caracol Radio)
- Huelga en la Drummond esta a espera de una tutela (Portfolio)
- Sindicato no reconoce fin de la huelga de Drummond (La Republica)