Solidarity and Divisions: Challenges to Solidarity in the Global Coal Industry
―What force on earth is weaker than the single strength of one?
But the union makes us strong.‖
--Ralph Chaplin, “Solidarity Forever,” 1915
“Each man is also a member of society; hence he belongs to the community of man. It is
not just certain individuals but all men who are called to further the development of human
society as a whole...
“We are under obligation to all men... The reality of human solidarity brings us not only
benefits but also obligations...
“Development of the individual necessarily entails a joint effort for the development of
the human race as a whole...
“Would that all those who profess to be followers of Christ might heed His plea: "I was
hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you
took me in; naked and you covered me; sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to
“When we fight poverty and oppose the unfair conditions of the present, we are not just
promoting human well-being; we are also furthering man's spiritual and moral development, and
hence we are benefiting the whole human race.”
--Encyclical of Pope John Paul VI on the Development of Peoples, ―Populorum Progressio,‖
March 26, 1967
Multifaceted forms of solidarity, based on different political and cultural ideologies and
identities, have formed part of a rather inchoate international solidarity ―movement‖ around the
issue of coal over the past two decades. Prior to the recent globalization of the industry, and the
growing concern with the environment, solidarity around coal was largely among workers from
the same region or country. Labor solidarity was pursued in the traditional sense -- as a
relationship between equals, based on a collective self-interest. In this sense, capitalism is
revolutionary precisely because it establishes the conditions for solidarity by creating a class of
similarly situated workers who share common interests (against employers) that are best
defended through organization and unity. U.S. coal miners learned this lesson perhaps better
than anyone during the first half of the twentieth century as they formed one of the most militant
labor unions – the United Mine Workers -- in U.S. history.
After a post-World War II decline, the coal industry has undergone a revival and a
transformation since the 1970s. Today most coal is mined from the surface, rather than
underground, and most coal workers in the United States are non-union. Coal production has
spread from Appalachia to Wyoming, and the United States participates in an active import and
export trade in coal, even while coal is increasingly touted as a domestic energy source.
Coal producers and consumers (i.e. power plants) now search the globe for cheap coal,
effectively connecting unionized miners in underground mines of a declining industry in
Alabama to miners who remove entire mountain tops in West Virginia; to non-unionized (but
well paid) strip miners in the massive mines of Wyoming; and to relatively poorly paid (though
unionized) strip miners in two of the world‘s largest mines in Colombia. The growth of strip
mining has also been extremely deleterious to the land and people in the coal regions and
inspired organization and protest around community and environmental issues. These
connections represent potential sites of solidarity, but can also be characterized by division and
As the coal industry has gone global, and as people have become more conscious of
global coal‘s impacts, local and international solidarities have emerged. It is no longer simply
workers versus mining companies. A wider array of actors, including a diverse collection of
communities, consumers, and environmentalists as well as workers and unions, are now linked
together through this commodity (and recognize these linkages even if they understand and
prioritize them quite differently). At the same time, the places and people involved in the
production and consumption of coal have become so diverse that forging workable lines of
solidarity remains an ongoing and challenging process.
This paper explores the ways in which a diverse set of actors have interacted with each
other and attempted to create networks of solidarity to challenge the global coal industry. How
have U.S. communities, consumers, environmentalists, unions, and non-union workers interacted
with their Colombian counterparts and engaged with multinational coal companies that have
increasingly adopted at least the rhetoric of social, corporate, and environmental responsibility?
Strands of Solidarity
The concept of solidarity, and contemporary Latin America solidarity movements,
including the various organizations that are involved in solidarity around coal, draw on both a
labor and a religious tradition of solidarity. Both of these traditions ask individuals to see their
fates as intertwined with those of others, and to act from an understanding that self-interest is
inextricable from collective interest. At their most radical, both traditions can call for
fundamental social change to overcome injustices and inequalities.
Embedded in the logic of solidarity are two potentially different challenges. On one
hand, solidarity demands that people join forces to defend those in the weakest position. By
raising up those at the bottom, the interests of all will be served. On the other, solidarity
challenges people to support the most radical or revolutionary struggles—those attempting to
spearhead transformative social change. These challenges play out somewhat different from a
labor and from a religious perspective.
While labor solidarity assumes that workers‘ individual or particularistic interests and the
common interest of the working class are one, reality is often more complicated. Inequalities or
differences among workers can undermine the traditional basis for solidarity (i.e. shared interests
and a common enemy). Especially in the United States, unions have often chosen, or been
forced into, conflicts that pit one sector of the working class against another. Unions have
accepted mechanization and speed-ups—which help some workers and harm others—in order to
support companies‘ goals of productivity; they have adhered to US foreign policy objectives that
undermine labor in other countries; they have signed sweetheart contracts that privilege unions‘
bureaucratic interests over those of the workers; they have adopted the idea of an American
standard of living that depends on the underpaid work of non-unionized workers at home and
abroad, and that is environmentally unsustainable. These tensions and contradictions have
affected the nature of solidarities related to the coal industry.
This strain between the particularistic and common interests of working people takes on
new characteristics under globalization. As the coal industry has changed, miners find
themselves – like their counterparts in globalized industries everywhere -- working and living in
very different conditions all over the world (conditions that can both divide and unite workers).
One of the ironies of global capitalism is that at the same time as it exacerbates the
divide/inequality between labor and capital, thus recreating the material basis for solidarity, it
also creates, feeds off, and depends on regional inequalities, differences, and divides between
working people (effectively making solidarity more difficult).
At the same time, as inequalities have sharpened in the postwar period, there has been a
growing awareness among certain sectors at home and abroad regarding the global contradictions
and devastation associated with capitalist expansion. Within the labor movement itself, U.S.
mainstream unions began to reevaluate their Cold War alliance with a U.S. foreign policy that
had contributed to the global expansion of US capital and the decline of the U.S. manufacturing
sector. As a result, by the time the coal industry got to Colombia in the 1980s, it faced a US
union movement that had begun to take international solidarity more seriously, particularly as
Colombian miners faced shocking levels of repression. US corporations and the US government
could no longer assume unconditional support from US unions.
Beyond the labor movement, the development of this differentiated (and at times quite
vague) political consciousness about the environmental, political, cultural, and economic costs of
a globalized world has manifested itself in a number of oppositional movements that have
complicated the playing field both for US imperialism and US labor unions. A significant
challenge has come from revolutionary and religious traditions that enjoin those in positions of
privilege to extend not only charity –which assumes that the fundamental inequalities will
remain – but solidarity in the struggle to create a more just world. At least by the time of the
Spanish Civil War, revolutionary solidarity had incorporated not only the unity of the oppressed,
but also the idea that commitment to the collective struggle could require those not directly
involved to stand with the oppressed.
In Spain, the Church stood with elites on the opposite side from the left. By Vatican II,
however, parts of the Church had opened to the idea of standing in solidarity with the
dispossessed in their struggle for social justice. This tendency was particularly strong within
Latin America and, by the 1980s, religious and revolutionary solidarity had joined together in
organizations like Witness for Peace (and many others) to form the Central America solidarity
movement. More recently, and drawing on this history, a Colombia solidarity movement has
emerged that opposes both US military involvement and neoliberalism. This religious-
revolutionary tradition was infused by anti-imperialism, often worked in solidarity with Latin
American labor organizations (that also tended to be anti-imperialist), and forms an important
part of the context in which US coal (both companies and unions) currently finds itself in
The global incursion of coal mines has also coincided with new waves of ethnic
consciousness, in Colombia and globally. The 1992 quincentenary focused global attention on
indigenous rights. Vatican II and Liberation Theology also encouraged the Catholic Church to
rethink its role in colonialism and become involved in indigenous organizing in Latin America.
African diasporic consciousness grew as a global phenomenon in the anti-colonial struggles of
the 1960s, the Cuban revolution, and independence in the British Caribbean and much of Africa.
In Colombia, these phenomena intersected to a greater extent than in other areas of Latin
America, because of the prevalence of African-origin populations in remote rural areas,
including the Chocó and the coal producing region of La Guajira.
Ethnic (and more broadly cultural) consciousness has also been tied to growing
awareness of the environmental destruction associated with capitalist expansion in general and
natural resource extraction in particular. Indigenous people in Colombia and rural peoples in
West Virginia have both turned to culture in order to defend lifeways rooted in land and place.
This has been a central part of the alliances they have been able to form with sectors of the
(largely northern) environmental movement.
The growing awareness of industry‘s environmental dark side at home and abroad has
also profoundly shaped the playing field for coal companies and unions. The turn to imported
coal itself was connected to the environmental movement and the push for cleaner burning power
plants. Seeking to reduce emissions, power plants sought cleaner sources of coal in places like
Wyoming and Colombia. Opposition to mountain-top removal produced interesting working
class/environmental alliances, and further encouraged companies to get their coal outside of
Appalachia. Indeed, as the concept of global warming entered the popular consciousness, even
the coal industry has turned environmentalist, touting both social and environmental
responsibility. Coal, as we hear on TV almost nightly, is not only ―clean,‖ but profoundly
American and the patriotic solution to our dependence on foreign oil.
In short, both coal companies and the US labor movement now operate within a
complicated political terrain that has been profoundly shaped by a labor movements and a
religious-revolutionary left as well as indigenous-ethnic, environmental, and consumer
movements that represent challenges to, and potential alliances for, US corporations and
Changing structures in the coal industry
Until World War II, coal was the preeminent source of power in the United States, and
most of it was dug from under the earth by coal miners, especially in the Appalachia region.1
The rapid expansion of the industry, combined with dangerous working conditions and poor pay,
contributed to the growth of union organizing in the early twentieth century. From 1919 to 1959,
under the leadership of John L. Lewis, the United Mine Workers became one of the country‘s
most militant unions. By the middle of the twentieth century union contracts and New Deal
regulations began to improve conditions, peaking with the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in
1969. The mining workforce reached 600,000 at its height in 1930.2 In 1950, 90% of the
480,000 mineworkers in the country belonged to the UMW.3
Structural changes undermined these gains. After WWII, the demand for coal declined as
oil replaced some of its uses. Mechanization, and a shift from underground to strip mining,
From the middle of the nineteenth century underground mines employed tens of thousands of especially Slavic immigrants in
Pennsylvania, rural white farmers from Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, and black prisoners in Alabama.
Coal from these mines powered steamships, railroads and factories from the early nineteenth century on. In other words, it
Duane Lockard, Coal: A Memoir and Critique (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 50.
Noah Leavitt, ―One Nation, Underground,‖ Slate, February 8, 2006.
meant that more coal could be extracted with fewer workers. In addition, the industry
consolidated and came under the control of energy conglomerates. As a result, when it began
another round of expansion in the 1970s during the oil crisis, the coal industry looked very
different. In 1970, 40% of the country‘s coal came from open-pit mines.4 New open-pit
mines—especially in the Powder River basin in Wyoming—mushroomed in the 1970s. By
1973, strip mines produced more than half of the country‘s coal.5 The mining workforce was cut
in half between the end of WWII and the early 1970s.6
Due the shifts from underground to surface mines, from small mines and small
companies to big mines and big companies, and from Appalachia to the western U.S., workforce
numbers would never recover even as coal production grew dramatically after the 1970s. The
number of mines in the United States declined from 6,663 to 3,022 between 1976 and 1991,
while coal production increased by 45%.7 Altogether the U.S. mined 1,162.5 million short tons
in 2006—about 30% from Appalachia, 10% from surface mines in Texas, Indiana and Illinois,
and 40% from Wyoming.8
The switch to strip mining and mountain top removal, and the slow decline of eastern
coal in general has had a devastating impact on the Appalachian region. One of the ironies of the
industry is that although coal did not bring prosperity to Appalachia, the impact of its decline has
been far worse. As Jeff Goodell explains, ―More than half the mines in West Virginia closed by
the 1990s. The ones that remained became bigger, more efficient, and less in need of human
beings. Coal-rich McDowell County, which as late as 1980 had 7,200 mining jobs, the most of
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 128.
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 128.
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 143.
U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, ―The Changing Structure of the U.S. Coal
Industry: An Update,‖ July 1993. http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/FTPROOT/coal/051393.pdf.
Goodell, Big Coal, 4; U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, ―Annual Coal Report,
any of the eleven coalfield counties, had lost an incredible 90 percent of those jobs by 2003.
Mercer County went from 890 jobs to 34. Overall, the southern coalfields lost about 26,000
mining jobs between 1980 and 2003. That's more than two out of three mining jobs in twenty-
The shift to Wyoming – and Colombian – coal also had complicated environmental
causes and consequences. Environmental activism, resulting in the Clean Air Act, was one of
the factors that encouraged power plants to switch to new sources of coal. When Phase II of the
CAA Amendments went into effect in 1990 power plants had to meet stricter sulfur emissions
requirements, making Appalachian coal, with its higher sulfur content, less economical.
According to the US Department of Energy, coal imports ―increased dramatically‖ in the late
1990s because of the new requirements. In 1998 some the country imported only 3.5 million
tons, but this increased to over 12 million tons of coal by 2000 and over 16 million in 2004.
Over 60% of that came from Colombia..10 Appalachian coal was also the most affected by
imports, since imports went primarily to the East Coast consumers that had previously relied on
Appalachia for their supply.
Unions in the United States and Colombia
Since the 1940s, unions in the United States, including the UMWA, have generally taken
a more ―business‖ approach to unionism than their counterparts in Colombia. In the US, angry
confrontation, street barricades, and mass mobilizations were sidelined during the postwar period
in favor of a model in which union leaders adopted a relatively narrow, opportunistic, vision that
stressed ―delivering the goods‖ to a de-politicized rank-and-file through boardroom-like
Goodell, Big Coal, 34.
U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, Coal Industry Annual, 2000.
http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/coal/cia/cia_sum.html; Energy Information Administration, Quarterly Coal Report,
December 2004. http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/coal/quarterly/qcr.pdf.
negotiation with capital. For much of the postwar period this model was also steeped in
nationalism, including an unsavory long-term relationship with government agencies aimed at
undermining and destroying the left in Latin America and elsewhere.
This model of labor-management collaboration was eminently clear in the UMWA. In
the 1950s, the union‘s president John L. Lewis ―struck a clandestine deal with his erstwhile
adversaries, the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA). The deal was essentially this:
if the BCOA increased its royalty contributions to the welfare fund and fattened wages, the union
would eschew strikes and not resist the mechanization of coal mining whereby the operators
could hold down production costs.‖ This agreement, argues Duane Lockard, ―no doubt
strengthened key elements of the industry and aided the miners whose jobs survived the
productivity boosts from mechanization. But it was disastrous for the large majority of
By contrast, Colombian unions, including those in the mining sector, have tended to take
a more classist approach that stresses (if not always achieves) more bottom-up leadership
structures, an active and politicized membership, and a broad, solidaristic, political vision that
works to build alliances with a range of social groups. This model has also been strongly anti-
imperialist, frequently criticizing foreign corporations, and particularly mining companies, for
―looting our natural resources.‖ Colombian unionists know the history of the American Institute
for Free Labor Development and its involvement in Chile, Central America and the Caribbean,
and Venezuela, far better than do most U.S. unionists.
Given this history of imperialism and diverging political visions, it is not surprising that
international labor solidarity between unions in the US and Colombia has traditionally been
limited and tense. In the 1990s, however, with the end of the Cold War and a growing awareness
Lockard, Coal, 135, 35.
of globalization‘s impact on US manufacturing, the AFL-CIO underwent a reform process that
began with the election of John Sweeney and embraced (however unevenly) a new political
vision for American labor. International solidarity was given renewed prominence – which was
reflected in the replacement of AIFLD and the other regional institutes with the Solidarity Center
-- in large part because it was now seen as a necessity for US labor. Working to improve wages
and conditions in places like Colombia and China was not simply the right thing to do, it was
perceived as a requirement for preventing the continued, long-term, erosion of US wages and
working conditions (a sort of ―we can either bring their wages up to ours or go down to theirs‖).
Politically, this rethinking (which began in the 1970s) involved the recognition that US labor‘s
commitment to US foreign policy objectives, in which the left and unions had been tamed and
decimated in Latin America and elsewhere, had in fact set the stage for the wholesale flight of
As welcome as this more global vision of international solidarity is, its realization has
been complicated by a number of factors. Economic nationalism continues to be seductive in
part because old visions and strategies die hard but also because of the contradictions and
pressures inherent in global capitalism. U.S. miners and factory workers may recognize that
struggling with their brothers and sisters in Colombia or China is necessary in order to prevent
the race to the bottom, but adopting such a global vision can be difficult in a short-term that is
often defined by declining wages, reduced benefits, and disappearing jobs. In such a context,
international solidarity can easily give way to a nationalist stance that tries to prevent
―American‖ companies from investing overseas and exporting ―our‖ jobs to ―foreigners.‖
International solidarity is also complicated by the fact that the ―American standard of
living‖ that US unions seek to maintain for their members and (sometimes) hope to raise their
Third World comrades up to, is not only environmentally unsustainable in the long term but is in
fact utterly dependent on looting the resources and accessing the cheap labor of Latin America
and other areas of the Third World. It‘s only sustainable through the exploitation of the Third
World (and thus not reproducible for the Third World).
Moving mines to Colombia
The links between the decline of Appalachian coal and the rise of Colombia as a major
supplier have been quite direct. In 1979 Exxon opened a $50 million mine in Wayne County,
West Virginia, announcing – as mine operators are wont to do – that there was decades of well-
paid work at the unionized operation. What made sense in 1979, however, no longer made
corporate sense only four years later. By then, Exxon – along with other oil companies that had
invested heavily in coal after the oil crises of the 1970s – were no longer high on Appalachian
coal and were selling off their mines to invest in what was to become the world‘s largest open-pit
coal mine, in Colombia. By the mid-1990s, Exxon had only two coal operations left in North
America and had moved its entire coal business to Colombia. The same is true for the other
major US coal company operating in Colombia. After promising decades of employment to
local miners, Drummond, which had been Alabama‘s leading coal company for most of the
twentieth century, pulled completely out of Alabama and developed another giant open-pit mine
in northern Colombia.
The attractiveness of Colombian coal from the perspective of US purchasers nicely
coincided with the Colombian government‘s desire – driven by the IMF and the broader
implementation of neoliberalism – to increase exports. With a ready market in the United
States, foreign mining companies, in alliance with the Colombian state, simply had to find a way
to get the vast quantities of Colombian coal out of the ground and onto ships. Enter the U.S.
government. As coal mining in Appalachia declined, and communities in places like West
Virginia and Alabama dealt with the economic and environmental consequences, the U.S.
government dumped millions of dollars into the construction of the Cerrejón mine in Colombia.
By the time the Export-Import Bank (of the United States government) was through, it had lent
the Colombian government $1.5 billion, in effect bankrolling Colombia‘s share of a ―joint‖
project between Exxon and the Colombian state.
The Cerrejón mine in northern Colombia began in 1982 as a joint venture between Exxon
and the government, and by 1983 the mine had organized a company union to control its rapidly
expanding labor force. Within two years, however, the coal miners had taken over the union and
made it their legitimate representative. Unfortunately, the first two rounds of contract
negotiations in 1986 and 1988 between the mine and the union ended with the military being
called in to force the miners back to work – hardly a good environment for negotiating a fair
labor contract. Worse yet, the union – now called Sintracarbón -- and the coal miners found
themselves with relatively few effective allies within Colombia. The Colombian state -- who
owned both the mine and the military – was in fact repressing the workers. And the miners‘
natural ally – the Colombian labor movement – had been decimated during the 1980s and 1990s
by both the Colombian state and paramilitary forces. Neoliberalism had come late to Colombia
but once implemented arrived with unprecedented brutality. Between 1986 and 2003, over 4000
trade unionists were murdered. Hundreds of others were threatened, forced into exile,
kidnapped, etc. Such oppression was heavy in the energy sector. It was in this context that
Colombian coal miners turned to international allies.
US unions respond
At the end of the 1980s the United Mineworkers (UMWA) sent a delegation from Illinois
to Colombia which resulted in a commitment from the UMWA to support the Colombian union
in the 1990 round of contract negotiations. United Mineworkers President, Richard Trumka, put
it like this: ―Our goal is the strengthen unions in low-wage countries so they are strong enough to
fight for decent wages and working conditions to raise their standard of living up to our level. If
we don‘t the multinational corporations will attempt to lower our standards to the lowest
common international denominator.‖ Put another way, the fate of miners in Illinois, Alabama,
West Virginia and Colombia are all intertwined; international solidarity makes sense for
When the negotiations between Exxon and the labor union collapsed in March of 1990
the United Mineworkers sponsored a solidarity tour by a Colombian union leader, which in turn
led the United Mineworkers to deepen its commitment to Colombia by supporting Colombian
mine workers financially, meeting with Exxon shareholders to press them on Exxon‘s human
rights abuses in Colombia, and working to encourage coal importers (like the Danish state power
company) to likewise put pressure on Exxon. Unfortunately, the 1990 negotiations ended in
familiar fashion. Eight hundred armed soldiers entered the mine with armored tanks and the
President of Colombia ordered the miners back to work.12
At this point, the United Mineworkers began recruiting more allies to support the union
in preparation for the 1992 round of bargaining. During the next four years, in fact, the United
Mineworkers organized an impressive campaign to support Colombian miners. This campaign
was the turning point in labor relations at Cerrejón. The military has never again been deployed
to settle a labor dispute. The 1992 contract negotiations were relatively harmonious. It was first
This campaign is described in Ken Zinn, ―Labor Solidarity and Colombia,‖ Labor Research Review 23
(Spring/Summer 1995), 35-43.
time an agreement had been reached without a strike, without the firing of union leaders, and
without military intervention. The success of this campaign allowed the union to strengthen
internally, negotiate reasonably good contracts and, after a change in leadership, become
something of a vanguard – that looked beyond bread and butter issues -- for progressive
organizing in the region.
The success of this campaign is significant on a number of levels. First, the UMWA
reflected a genuine commitment to international solidarity and a willingness to help Latin
American unionists against US corporations (and, implicitly, the US government). The AFL-
CIO had broken from a US foreign policy that had paved the way for American corporations by
attacking labor radicalism and promoting compliant unions in Latin America. Second, the
response worked, thus providing something of a model for international solidarity. The
campaign waged by the UMWA, in alliance with Sintracarbón, put Cerrejón under an
international spotlight, making it difficult for the mine to rely on violence as a form of labor
control. This helped Sintracarbón create the space to negotiate a reasonably fair labor contract
(by Colombian standards). Shining attention on the human, labor, and environmental abuses of
multinational corporations in Colombia and elsewhere has proven to be a key tactic of
international solidarity groups based in the US, Canada, and Europe. It has also become a
central strategy for Colombians who turn to international actors for solidarity/protection against
violent actors who often operate with impunity in Colombia.
It is not clear, however, whether (a) Colombians and their ―international‖ allies
understand this form of political solidarity in identical ways and (b) whether a form of solidarity
that is largely in response to a particular political crisis, with one group periodically coming to
the aid of another, can lead to deeper, more sustained, forms of alliances and movements (and in
which solidarity flows both ways). In fact, by the end of the 1990s the relationship between the
UMW and Sintracarbón had disintegrated, and few workers in either country were even aware of
the recent history.
For much of the 20th century Drummond was an institution in Alabama. It was
Alabama‘s leading coal producer during the post-war period and the Drummond family was a
fixture among the state‘s elite. Beginning in the 1980s, however, this homegrown company
began to develop one of the largest coal mines in the world in northern Colombia while
simultaneously shutting down its Alabama mines, laying off Alabama coal miners, and
eventually supplying Alabama power plants with Colombian coal. The reasons for the shift are
familiar enough: union wages, environmental laws, and deep mines in Alabama made it cheaper
to import coal all the way from Colombia than to get it from mines just a few miles away.
Drummond‘s history in Colombia has been plagued by violence – violence which has
generated a wave of solidarity from US unions. By the time the company‘s La Loma mine came
on-line in the mid-1990s paramilitaries controlled the region. Although Drummond‘s
relationship to paramilitary forces is a source of ongoing (legal) dispute, the corporation
benefitted from paramilitary violence against the mine‘s labor union, Sintramienergética.
Unionists, especially when they complained about conditions at the mine, were often threatened
or accused of being guerrillas (an accusation that can be a death sentence in Colombia). The
threats turned deadly in 2001. A union activist, Cándido Méndez, was murdered in front of his
family by paramilitaries. In March, the President and Vice President of the union, Valmore
Locarno Rodríguez and Víctor Hugo Orcasita, were removed from a company bus and brutally
murdered. In October, the union‘s new president, Gustavo Soler, was also murdered. The anti-
union message was clear.
These killings prompted outrage and another round of solidarity from unions in the
United States and internationally, including condemnations from not only the UMWA but the
USWA and the ICEM. By this time, the AFL-CIO was already opposing US military aid to
Colombia because of the widespread human and labor rights violations there.
Then, in March of 2002, the International Labor Rights Fund, in alliance with the United
Steelworkers and Colombia unions, sued Drummond under the Alien Tort Claims Act,
attempting to hold the company responsible for complicity in the murders (with similar cases
pending against Occidental Petroleum and Coca-Cola). In July of 2007 Drummond was
acquitted as a jury determined that the ILRF had been unable to establish that the company had
conspired with paramilitaries; the ILRF has appealed, arguing that the judge had barred
testimony from three men with firsthand knowledge of Drummond‘s links to the very
paramilitaries blamed for the killings.
The lawsuit was understood from the beginning by the ILRF as having larger goals than
simply gaining compensation for the families of the victims: it was a tool for holding specific US
corporations accountable while forcing all companies to change their practices. Not unlike the
earlier campaign at Cerrejón, this alliance with Drummond workers was in response to a crisis
and aimed at putting the company under an international spotlight.
The question of what roles court cases play in the broader strengthening of solidarity or
the development of transnational union movements remains an important, but open one. In the
case of Coca Cola described by Lesley Gill, serious divisions emerged between the U.S. lawyers,
who urged Sinaltrainal to accept a financial settlement from the company, and Colombian union
leaders, who felt that accepting the settlement would undermine their larger political goals.
Beyond the Lawsuit
The lawsuit against Drummond served to put Colombian coal miners on the map among
UMWA members. In February 2008, as part of ongoing solidarity efforts, the AFL-CIO
Solidarity Center sponsored a US tour by leaders from Sintramienergética who came to the
Birmingham region to visit the last remaining Drummond mine in Alabama (one of the largest
and deepest underground coal mines in the country). The Colombian unionists were greeted
warmly at the union local, at the mine, and in the community. Everyone involved stressed that
coal miners were all part of a shared struggle; Alabama miners consistently pointed out that they
had to work to bring Colombian wages up if they were to protect their own jobs and incomes.
To be sure, decrying poor wages and conditions in the Third World can be a politically correct
and thinly veiled way of saying: These are our jobs and we want your wages to go up so you
don‘t get our jobs in the first place. Nevertheless, Alabama unionists seemed to be working from
a more profound analysis, recognizing that global industries require global struggles. Their own
interests were now tied with coal miners in other parts of the world. The Colombians, for their
part, seemed to welcome this understanding.
These type of tours – bringing Colombian miners to the US and Canada while sending
North American miners and activists to Colombia – have become an important, common, and
extremely useful mode of solidarity. They serve to bring allies together, educate and energize
people on both sides of the geographical divide, offer a space for thinking about future
collaboration, and let mining companies know that they are being watched.
Yet these exchanges are also caught up within complex cultural, political, and economic
differences and inequalities. For many Americans, solidarity with Colombians tends to be
viewed through the lens of charity, driven by the idea that Colombians live under such horrific,
Third World conditions that it is therefore the duty of caring Americans to lend a hand. This
often has a religious twist, as one miner put it: ―I can‘t imagine the conditions in which they live
and work. I really can‘t. As Christians we need to do everything we can to help these people.‖
Among miners, such statements are quickly followed by the recognition that they also need to
help Colombian coal miners because ―if we don‘t our own wages will be dragged down.‖ As
anyone who has been on a solidarity delegation knows, the notion of solidarity-as-charity can be
even more pronounced among those who do not share the experience of work (i.e. non-union
Solidarity-as-charity works from the recognition that there are real differences and
inequalities between the situation of Colombians and Americans -- even if such a perspective
does not always incorporate an understanding of the global system that creates and connects
them. It tends to overstate and reify differences in essentialized ways that produce a familiar
pattern and narrative: Americans go to Colombia to learn about poverty and political repression
and then send resources, guidance, and vision to Colombia (or Colombians come here…). It
almost inevitably has a paternalistic element to it. The possibility that Colombians might have
something to offer besides powerful narratives of poverty/repression is rarely considered and
often reproduced by the tours themselves as Colombians quickly learn how effective their
testimonials are at ―moving‖ American audiences (and how their more political statements and
analyses about transforming the global economy seem to fall on deaf ears). This is complicated
by language, as interactions require translation and tend to be limited to more formal
presentations, and by the fact that solidarity exchanges are often a one-time thing for the
particular individuals involved; most people on both sides of the border don‘t have the
opportunity to continually visit each other and thus deepen their understandings.
A second, related, and more important issue raised by solidarity tours is: What next?
This concern was expressed in different ways by both Colombian and Alabama miners. An
Alabama coal miner articulated what many of us feel at some point: ―I really want to help but
don‘t know how. It‘s hard enough to get by here with work and our own union struggle. Even if
I could go to Colombia, what would that accomplish? There has to be something more we can
do.‖ One of the Colombians had similar questions: ―I‘m glad I came. Drummond knows we are
here and knows our brothers here will be watching our negotiations. And I think people here
understand our problems better. But it is hard to know how this will be continued or what it will
One thing it led to in this case was another solidarity tour. In the summer of 2008, the
Solidarity Center brought union leaders from the US to Colombia to support coal miners in a
tense set of negotiations. It‘s unclear what role the presence of US union leaders played, but the
Colombian union successfully negotiated a contract with Drummond.
Solidarity with communities affected by coal mining
Just as violence against Colombian coal miners led their US counterparts to extend the
hand of international labor solidarity beginning in the 1980s, violence against indigenous and
Afro-Colombian communities surrounding Exxon‘s Cerrejón mine led activists from the US,
Canada, Europe, and Australia to join Colombian communities affected by the mine. Most of the
international activists conceive of this struggle as a piece of something much larger—a campaign
against U.S. military and economic policy in Colombia and in Latin America. These lines of
solidarity – labor and anti-imperialism -- have much in common in Colombian coal country: both
were stimulated by violence/crisis tied to multinational corporations and US foreign policy; both
have lacked consistency and continuity; both are characterized by ―solidarity‖ that flows from
North to South; and both negotiate the line between solidarity and charity, driven by a
combination of shared interests and a commitment to social justice.
Despite these similarities, and the fact that violence against, and solidarity with,
communities and miners both began in the 1980s, these two strands remained remarkably distinct
until very recently. Labor solidarity was disconnected from anti-imperialist community-oriented
solidarity at both the international and national level. International solidarity groups working
with displaced communities had little communication with workers and unions on either side of
the border. Some of them came from faith- and non-faith-based Central America solidarity
groups that were highly critical of the AFL-CIO‘s role in Central America. Even in Colombia,
miners at Cerrejón had very limited relationships with the indigenous and Afro-Colombian
communities that were being displaced by the mine, though for somewhat different reasons.
This section briefly outlines the history of solidarity between Colombian coal mining
communities and northern activists, ultimately explaining why these two lines of solidarity
remained relatively distinct for so long and why they eventually came together (in an uneven and
imperfect way) to challenge foreign mining companies in the last few years.
International solidarity with communities in Colombia
By the early 1980s, or almost as soon as Exxon began developing Cerrejón, indigenous
communities in the region were organizing to defend against the mine‘s takeover of their
ancestral lands, particularly in the northern areas of La Guajira where the mine‘s railroad line
and port system impacted indigenous communities. These efforts included creating an
indigenous organization, pushing state agencies to defend indigenous rights, invading land, and
working to solidify and legalize community control over land by promoting the use of reservas.
Despite these struggles, the mine expanded and indigenous communities continued to struggle
against the loss of land, sacred spaces, cultural integrity, and increasing poverty. In the northern
region, the mine was soon followed by the arrival of paramilitaries, which have carried out
threats, murders, and a 2004 massacre that forced an entire indigenous community to abandon its
Closer to the mine the situation has been even worse. The mine – both physically and
with its pollution of rivers and air – began to encroach on indigenous and Afro-Colombian
communities as it expanded. In the early 1990s, three villages were either dispersed by violence
or forced to sell their lands as the mine expanded. They literally vanished, a pattern that
provided something of a blueprint for mine-community relations. The mine‘s pollution and need
for land would make life in a particular community increasingly difficult and unpleasant;
community members were then directly harassed and pressured to sell their land at the same time
as it was increasingly difficult to make a living (which of course made it more attractive to sell).
Finally, if the residents refused to leave, they were forcibly evicted. The most notorious case
was that of Tabaco, an Afro-Colombian community of some 700 people dating back to the
1780s. Tabaco was harassed by the mine for close to five years before bulldozers, backed by
armed forces, leveled the community on August 9, 2001.
In response to the ongoing attacks on local communities, and especially after the
destruction of Tabaco in 2001, northern activists began to respond to appeals for international
solidarity. Like the union in the early 1990s, the communities and their Colombian advocates
had difficulties finding allies in other parts of Colombia. La Guajira remains a relatively isolated
region. It is largely off the map for Colombian human rights groups who are faced with millions
of displaced people in regions where the violence has been even worse.
The communities initially reached out to the London-based Mines and Communities
Network. Further international mobilization came from the home countries of Cerrejón‘s
corporate owners (first United States/Exxon, and then when the mine sold, from England/Ango-
American, Switzerland/Glencore , and Australia/BHP Billiton), and from the countries where
coal from the mine is actually consumed. By 2003 this involvement had reached a semi-
coordinated campaign, with ties between Colombian communities and northern activists
manifesting themselves in a variety of forms. Community leaders and their Colombian
advocates toured in the United States, Canada, and Europe, educating coal consumers, pressuring
the mining companies, and attracting new allies (all activities that northerners continued after the
tours ended). After a series of investigative articles on abuses in the Colombian coal industry
was published in a major national paper, the Danish national energy company decided to suspend
its contract with Drummond until the charges regarding the union leader murders were cleared
up. American and Canadian allies pressured local power companies to demand accountability
from Cerrejón. Northern activists and other concerned citizens, both as individuals and as part of
delegations, have in turn visited the mine, the communities, and held meetings with Cerrejón
As late as 2005, however, there was virtually no communication between the
communities and Sintracarbón, the mine‘s labor union, and only minimal communication
between northern (non-union) activists and Colombian coal unions. Coal miners are not from
the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that have been devastated by the mine. They
are two entirely distinct groups (in terms of their geographical origins, cultural backgrounds, and
economic locations), with miners either being imported into the region or coming from more
urban centers in La Guajira. The miners literally had no idea the communities existed, much less
that they were being destroyed by the mine where they worked. This ignorance was facilitated
by the fact that, after years of dealing with violence, Sintracarbón went through a period of
relative stability during the late 1990s and early 2000s and worked from a political vision that
did not look far beyond the mine; it focused largely on bread and butter issues of immediate
concern to its members (which given past violence was in itself a significant gain).
Two events – occurring roughly at the same time – brought the communities onto the
union‘s radar. First, there was a change in leadership within the union that resulted in a new set
of more militant leaders; a group of leftists were elected that advocated more forcefully for social
movement unionism and social justice. Second, in the summer of 2006, international activists
from the US and Canada, along with community leaders, organized a conference in La Guajira
on the impact of the Cerrejón mine. Union leaders from both Cerrejón and the Drummond mine
spoke at the conference and, more importantly, listened to community leaders talk about the
mine‘s impact on the region, as well as met community leaders and international activists.
The union‘s president, Jaime Delúquez, proposed an innovative dual solidarity. Help
organize international support for the union when we go into negotiations in November, he
suggested, and bring down a delegation to take union members to visit the affected
communities. We will then push the union to include a demand regarding the rights of the
communities in our bargaining proposal.
Thus Colombian union leaders, accompanied by international activists, first visited the
impacted communities in November, 2006. They were stunned that such impoverished
communities not only existed in Colombia but in their own backyard. From this point on, the
union would take on the cause of the communities, facilitating international delegations and
meeting with community leaders.
In conjunction with the November delegation, Sintracarbón, as promised, included in its
bargaining proposal a demand that the collective rights of local Afro-Colombian and indigenous
communities be recognized and addressed by the multinational consortium operating the
Cerrejón mine. Such a demand moves well beyond bread and butter issues that are typically
included in collective bargaining negotiations between labor unions and employers. As the
company would argue, the demand had nothing to do with the union or its members and had no
place at the negotiating table. This attempt to hold the Cerrejón mine responsible for the
devastation it had brought upon local communities reflected an expanding vision of social justice
on the part of the union – one that recognizes the importance of union-community alliances.
The inclusion of such a demand is all the more remarkable given the fact that not long
ago Sintracarbón could not negotiate even the most basic of workplace issues without fear of
military intervention. Given that routine union demands were met with armed thugs during the
1990s, it is significant that by the mid-2000s the union was not only successfully negotiating
workplace issues, but was in a position to push collective bargaining in new directions. The
union‘s past experience with violence may have shaped its willingness to push the boundaries of
collective negotiating – union leaders understand acutely the need for broader alliances. Their
recent experience in this regard offered a dramatic contrast to the situation of U.S. unions.
Nevertheless, several unions, including the United Steelworkers, joined the International
Commission in Support of Sintracarbón and the Communities Affected by Cerrejón to monitor
the contract negotiations and pressure the company to bargain fairly.
Unfortunately, the union‘s demand regarding the communities was ultimately left out of
the collective bargaining agreement, although the company did write a side letter recognizing the
importance of the issue and inviting the union to be part of Cerrejón‘s social programs. This was
a blow for the communities, and stole some of the momentum from the labor-community
alliance, but was also a key moment in the broader struggle to get the mine to recognize that the
community issue is not about to die. Currently, the mine is negotiating a resolution with the
communities, which in itself is a major advance from bulldozing their homes and a testament to
the role of the solidarity campaign.
The alliances between the communities, the union, and international activists have not,
however, been without tension or problems. The communities were isolated and lived in very
basic conditions prior to the arrival of the mine. Members of Tabaco are now displaced
throughout the region. The other communities that continue to exist do so in the most difficult of
conditions. They have lost their land, all sources of local employment, and are barely hanging
on. These are tough conditions for engaging in a struggle against the largest mining companies
in the world. Due in part to a lack of resources, communication within and between the
communities has been difficult, and even more so between the communities, the union, and
international allies. Divisions persist in the communities between those who want to relocate the
community to a new site and those who simply want to be compensated and get on with their
Union and communities do not appear to share any direct material goals. Union
members‘ jobs depend on the mine continuing to produce and expand; the communities continue
to be devastated by the mine‘s expansion. But the leftist ideology of the union leaders leads
them to a sense of solidarity with Colombians oppressed by multinational corporations, and the
villagers in the mining region are a prime example of this phenomenon. Leftist Colombian
senator Jorge Robledo echoed the sentiments of many when he declared ―Minería sí, pero no
así,‖ at the 2007 summer conference.
The position of the communities—accepting the presence of the mine, but demanding
relocation and compensation—allows for a common agenda with union workers. Indigenous
Guatemalan anti-mining activists were critical of what they saw as capitulation on the part of the
Colombian communities. ―Why do you talk about negotiating with the mine?‖ one asked in the
summer of 2007, in a meeting with Colombian union and community leaders. ―There is nothing
to negotiate. The land is yours—the mine has to leave.‖ ―This mine is not leaving,‖ the union
president responded drily. ―Our struggle is different from yours.‖
Unions and environmentalists in Appalachia
Mining unions and mining-affected communities in Appalachia have experienced a
different, but in some ways even more divided, trajectory from their counterparts in Colombia.
The potential for solidarity and a common agenda opposing the strip-mining that was destroying
both mineworkers‘ jobs and local communities emerged in the 1960s, but seemed to be
undermined by the 1970s.
Historian Chad Montrie points out that ―the campaign to abolish stripping [in the
Appalachian coal fields] was primarily a movement of farmers and working people‖—it was a
prime example of ―the environmentalism of the common people.‖13 ―The rural Appalachian
farmers, workers and unemployed who organized to ban strip-mining, or to enact and enforce
more stringent regulations, were typically not affluent or college-trained, and many of them were
committed to exposing the linkages between the stripping that was ruining the land and the
poverty that was devastating the region.‖ They protested ―the damage done by strip mining to
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 3-4.
farmland and homesteads, as well as the loss of jobs in an economically depressed region.‖14 It
was a position that, at least in theory, could appeal to organized labor.
But the main workers‘ organization in Appalachia—the United Mineworkers union—was
far from consistent in its stance on strip-mining and the environment. The union represented
both underground and surface miners. Its history, and the majority of its members, were in
underground mining. Yet as the industry shifted to strip mining, the union was faced with the
classic twin dilemma of productivity and disinvestment. If the UMW opposed measures that
would make mining more cost-effective, the companies could leave. But if the companies
implemented cost-saving measures—like shifting to surface mining—union jobs would be lost.
Furthermore, most underground miners were local people, who had a long-term interest in the
farming and sporting capacity of the land. Most strip miners, in contrast, were outsiders who had
little investment in the preservation of the local environment.
The Catch-22 for unions in the shift to strip mining was, ironically, partially the result of
another Catch-22. As unions pressed for improved safety standards in underground mines,
companies sought to evade new regulations by switching to stripping. In a parallel, but generally
unconnected process, public pressure to clean up power plants led to the Clean Air Act and its
subsequent Amendments—which likewise became a catalyst for the shift to the apparently
cleaner coal from Wyoming and Colombia. (Only apparently, because while lower in particulate
pollution, the low-ash Wyoming coal in fact produced greater CO2 emissions.)
But the UMW interpreted the two parallel phenomena in different ways. Union leaders
never expressed regret about the safety regulations that mining companies used as excuses for
shifting their production. They did, however, eventually jump on the ―jobs vs environment‖
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 4.
bandwagon and join their employers in arguing that environmental regulation would destroy
Montrie examines the early UMW involvement in one of the first campaigns to regulate
strip mining, in Pennsylvania in 1961 as ―largely a matter of expediency, a way of hampering the
production of an industry hitherto resistant to organization.‖15 The driving force behind the
campaign for regulation was the Allegheny County Sportmen‘s League (ACSL) which, as
Montrie points out, was overwhelmingly a working-class organization. Workers were also, of
course, represented by the Allegheny County Labor Committee, through their unions including
the United Steel Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the United
Mine Workers, and the Labor Committee also stood behind the campaign.16
The position of the mining industry, and its supporters in the Pennsylvania legislature,
was expressed by State Rep. Paige Varner (R-Clarion). ‗I don‘t see why we should give up a
growing industry,‖ he said, ―for a few fish or a few trees.‖17 The president of the Sunbeam Coal
Corporation concurred. ―Food on the table is more important than the delights of fishing,‖ he
declared, urging that the bill be stopped.18
But in Pennsylvania, 95% of the UMWA‘s members were underground miners. Surface
mining threatened their jobs. Thus Joseph Yablonski, then president of UMW District 5 in
Pennsylvania, supported the first struggle for strip mining regulation.19
Over the course of the debate in the state legislature, the mining industry position evolved
into one that claimed the mantle of environmentalism. Mining companies formed the
Pennsylvania Conservation Association, and ―barraged the media with images of reclamation
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 43.
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 46.
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 47.
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 49.
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 53.
successes and scheduled tours of reclamation projects.‖20 By 1964, Yablonski and the UMW
had also revised their position and accepted the companies‘ position that regulating strip mining
would threaten jobs. ―Though the UMW had its origins in the distinct economic interests of coal
company owners and coal miners,‖ Montrie argues, ―when it came to pollution controls and
abatement, both viewed as a threat to the industry and therefore to jobs, the UMW and company
officials thought and spoke as one.‖21 The UMW rank and file, however—most of whom were
still underground miners—frequently differed from the leadership in this regard, and these
differences played a significant role in the internal struggles in the union in the 1970s and 80s.
Interestingly, mainstream environmental organizations followed somewhat the same
trajectory as the union. From a position initially supporting a total ban on strip mining, they
shifted to advocating regulation, and, in the context of the ―energy crisis‖ of the 1970s, even
moved into taking positions in the regulatory apparatus. ―We wholeheartedly agree that a
balance, of course, is necessary if our economy and environment is to coexist,‖ Peter Borelli of
the Sierra Club explained.22 Meanwhile, strip mine operators pressed the issue of job loss in
their call for a presidential veto of the regulations passed by Congress in 1975 with slogans like
―We Don‘t Need Another 25,000 Unemployed‖ and ―Mr. President Save Our Jobs.‖23
For its part, recent UMW leadership has moved back and forth between dismissing
environmentalists as living in a fantasy world and attempting to find common ground. For the
most part, the UMW and environmentalists opposed to mountain top removal have found ways
to tiptoe around each other. After some angry public confrontations with the union,
environmental organizations have learned to focus on non-union companies when opposing the
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 54.
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 57.
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 162.
Montrie, To Save the Land and People, 169.
licensing of new strip mines. The union, for its part, finds common ground with
environmentalists in pressing for reclamation projects on strip-mined land.
A loosely-coordinated international campaign has sought to link the many parties
involved in this mining saga around an agenda of human and labor rights. One aspect has
focused on Cerrejón‘s treatment of the surrounding communities. The dramatic situation of the
communities, the exorbitant power of the mine, the involvement of the union there, and the
immediacy of the connection in the minds of coal consumers, unemployed coal miners in Canada
and Appalachia, and shareholders have all made it a compelling issue to organize around. The
delegations, and the tours by Colombian village and union representatives, have all inspired
extraordinary emotions of solidarity, as well as longer-term commitment to activism in support
of the communities.
Despite the striking examples of solidarity that have emerged related to the coal industry,
many different fault lines have divided workers from workers, and workers from communities, in
the various coal regions. In Colombia, union workers have been suspicious of their US
counterparts, while grateful for their support and sometimes feeling deeply linked to them by a
common analysis and common struggle against the strength of multinational capital. Colombian
unions threw their support behind the communities affected by coal mining, but were
disappointed by the communities‘ internal divisions and willingness, on occasion, to negotiate
individually with the company. The union—and many of the international supporters—believed
that the communities‘ position would be strengthened by presenting a common front, but
individuals and whole communities sometimes concluded that their only hope for obtaining any
concessions or compensation was to accept the offers made individually. Union and community
leaders agreed that the company‘s treatment of communities offered evidence of its
rapaciousness. Union leaders, though, sometimes failed to acknowledge the level of economic
and political vulnerability that made community leaders more willing to capitulate to company
offers than were union workers.
In Appalachia, the opposite occurred: community organizations repeatedly felt betrayed
when union leaders proved willing to acquiesce to expanding strip mines with little concern for
the effect on local residents or the environment. Guatemalan indigenous leaders, while
criticizing Colombian villagers for their willingness to negotiate with the mine, were astonished
that the union would support the villages. ―The union is our worst enemy—they are with the
company, because it‘s their jobs!‖ one Guatemalan explained at a meeting in Colombia.
International supporters confronted related challenges and frustrations. Communications
with both union and communities often faltered. Some internationalists were so firmly
committed to collective negotiations that they felt betrayed when the communities‘ unity
fragmented. The Colombian union threatened to break its relationship with the communities for
the same reason.
Despite the difficulties, the campaign in solidarity with the Colombian communities
seemed to push the mine into significant improvements in its behavior. After forming an
international commission to review its human rights and social practices in 2007, Cerrejón
announced that it was changing its policy towards the communities and would henceforth engage
in collective negotiations. As of this writing, although divisions among the communities and
between the communities and the union remain, the company has signed a preliminary
agreement with Tabaco for its relocation—a development that seemed unimaginable only two