POWER POLITICS: U.S. urged to act against Alabama coal company for union repression in Colombia

drummond_miners_colombia.jpgA U.S. union wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week expressing "grave concern" over Birmingham, Ala.-based Drummond Co.'s punishment of Colombian miners who went on strike over safety conditions they say led to a fellow worker's death.

United Steelworkers International President Leo W. Gerard sent a letter [pdf] to Clinton on Sept. 17 in response to Drummond's firing of the entire executive board of a local of the Sintramienergetica union. Drummond has also asked permission from the Colombian Labor Ministry to fire some 4,000 unionized workers. Drummond's actions come in retaliation for a work stoppage at its mine in La Loma, Colombia.

In March of this year, thousands of Colombian miners working for Drummond participated in the strike after their colleague Dagoberto Clavijo was killed when the truck he was driving fell into one of the company's open-pit mines. The union says driving conditions were unsafe.

The United Steelworkers union points out that the miners had the right to engage in the work stoppage under both Colombian law and International Labor Organization conventions. It also notes that a Colombian judge recently ordered that top Drummond executives -- including President Garry Drummond and Augusto Jimenez, head of the company's Colombian operations -- be criminally investigated for conspiring with paramilitaries to carry out the murders of union leaders Valmore Locarno, Victor Orcasita and Gustavo Soler in 2001.

As Facing South reported in June, a federal lawsuit was filed against Drummond alleging that the company paid millions of dollars to a Colombian paramilitary terrorist group responsible for the deaths of 67 people in an effort to disrupt union activities at its Colombian mine and railway operations.

That was the third lawsuit the company faced over alleged human rights abuses. Another was filed earlier this year by children of three slain Colombian miners, while one filed in 2007 by a Colombian labor union and families of murdered miners ended in a verdict for Drummond.

Drummond has maintained it's done nothing wrong. In a statement [pdf] released earlier this year in response to one of the lawsuits, it cites "an effort by trade unions and their lawyers to falsely blame Drummond Ltd. for some of the tragic violence against union leaders and others that plagued Colombia for decades."

Drummond bought the La Loma mine in the late 1980s and markets its lower-emissions coal in 13 countries under the trade name Aire Amigo, according to Sourcewatch.org. The company's Colombian exports have grown rapidly, from 1 million tons in 1995 to 22.9 million tons by 2007.

At the same time production has been growing in Colombia, Drummond has been closing mines and laying off union workers in Alabama. Between 1994 and 2001, Drummond closed down five mines and laid off 1,700 union miners in the state; this spring it laid off another 56 miners in Alabama's Jefferson County.

(Photo of Drummond Miners in Colombia from Sintramienergetica via Colombia Indymedia.)