Militant Journalism

Colombian union leaders fighting Philip Morris greeted in NYC with solidarity

Leaders of Sintraintabaco, Colombia’s National Union of Tobacco and Industry Workers, traveled to New York City this month to protest against tobacco giant Philip Morris International, headquartered here. Sintraintabaco is one of the unions at the forefront of the struggle against the multinational corporation — which it accuses of preying on and exploiting its workers — and has been organizing around demands of living wages, dignity, and respect for its union members, who have also faced deadly violence and repression at the hands of the Colombian state and right-wing paramilitaries. The week’s events were sponsored by The People’s Forum, the ANSWER Coalition, the Alliance for Global Justice, Labor Against Racism and War, and United Students Against Sweatshops.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Philip Morris has raked in profits of over $76 billion, while refusing to offer its workers a dignified life. Over the past few years, the company has instituted a policy of consistently laying off its workers. In 2019, the company closed two factories in Medellin and Barranquilla, Colombia, resulting in a loss of over 800 jobs. After these closures, Minister of Agriculture Andres Valencia stated he would work with Colombia’s National Federation of Tobacco Producers (Fedetabaco) on a plan for tobacco growers to transition to producing other crops, though that plan has yet to come to fruition.

On Oct. 6, The People’s Forum in Manhattan hosted the Sintraintabaco Workers Union for a panel discussion on the plight of tobacco workers in Colombia, which was moderated by socialist candidate for mayor and PSL member Cathy Rojas

“[Philip Morris], in particular, is one of many U.S.-headquartered corporations with a history of colluding with the Colombian state and right-wing paramilitaries to target union leaders and human rights defenders,” explained Rojas. “Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to give hundreds of millions in military aid to Colombia, funding this violence and [these] human rights abuses.”

Two days later on Oct. 8, Sintraintabaco held a rally in front of the Philip Morris corporate office in Midtown Manhattan as part of an International Day of Action against the corporation. The rally was attended by some 60 people, including members of United Students Against Sweatshops and United Steelworkers Local 9620, and members of the ANSWER Coalition. Philip Morris tobacco workers also participated in the Day of Action in Mexico and Colombia.

Oct. 8 was chosen to honor the anniversary of the death of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, who was radicalized by the suffering and poverty he witnessed while traveling from his native Argentina through South America. Seeking to protect its own business interests, the U.S. orchestrated the 1954 Guatemalan coup — the event which galvanized Guevara into entering revolutionary struggle against the U.S. empire. His life ended when he was executed by U.S.-backed Bolivian forces in La Higuera, Bolivia. Many years later, western business interests are still the root cause of poverty and misery throughout South America and the Caribbean.  

“We are the National Union of Workers that have dedicated ourselves to fighting for the rights of our people within our union against this transnational corporation,” announced Vildamir Ferroro, President of the Barranquilla Board of Sintraintabaco. “And we are glad to be here and fighting against the abuses of this corporation and also the Colombian government!” 

Local activists attended and expressed the imperative to build international solidarity with the union workers.

“Workers in New York City have a lot to learn from Colombian tobacco workers and union leaders,” said Natalia Marques, an organizer with the ANSWER Coalition. “They bravely traveled thousands of miles to picket outside the root cause of their exploitation: greedy corporations. We need to show solidarity with these workers because the same corporations that exploit Colombian workers also exploit workers in the U.S.”

The importance of such an international solidarity campaign is essential in combating transnational corporations that seek to crush all workers’ movements. 

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