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

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).

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