USO’s Vice President Fired on the Heels of Win in Rubiales

Since last year, a broad coalition led by Colombian oil sector union USO has been advocating for the non-extension of Canadian multinational Pacific Rubiales’ operating contract in Rubiales, the country’s most productive oil concession. In March national oil company Ecopetrol announced that it would not extend the contract, instead assuming control of Rubiales’ operations in 2016, which produce approximately 200,000 barrels of oil daily. USO sees this decision as a major victory due to the vast amounts of revenue that will be generated for the nation as a result, and criticizes Pacific Rubiales’ labor and environmental policies.

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However, relations between USO and Ecopetrol deteriorated on March 27 when the company fired the union’s national Vice President Edwin Palma. The notice indicated that Palma’s having published the salaries earned by its top executives amounted to a breach of their privacy.

The dismissal, and its motive, have been called into question by Colombian policymakers and the international community. US and Canada-based union United Steelworkers stated that the action is a clear attempt to silence union activists, and violates ILO conventions and Colombia’s commitments to labor rights.

This event has added to an already tense relationship between union and employer in the context of mass dismissals of workers as part of Ecopetrol’s plans to cut investment by 25% in 2015. USO has indicated the possibility of a national strike, fearing Ecopetrol will attempt to gut its collective bargaining agreement with the union. Some 600 ICP workers were fired in Bucaramanga last month.

USO’s collective bargaining agreements with Ecopetrol have long set the standard for labor conditions in Colombia’s oil industry. Ecopetrol was founded when USO organized a national strike to demand the creation of a publically managed oil company in 1948. The company is 85% owned by the state and the Colombian government recently appointed Juan Carlos Echeverry, a close ally of President Santos, to be its new president.