Free Website Translator

Coca-Cola: for Colombian trade unionists, it's the real deadly thing

By Linda Averill
Issue: Vol. 27, No. 1
Freedom Socialist Newspaper

Coke, the famous soft drink, is increasingly infamous as an accomplice in the murder of Colombian trade unionists.

An international boycott of Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries Odwalla and Minute Maid is gaining steam, protesting Coke's dirty dealings in Colombia and its terrible human rights and environmental record in India and elsewhere.

In December, New York University and the University of Michigan joined 11 other U.S. colleges in banning Coke from campus outlets. The victories at both colleges followed educational campaigns by student activists about Coke's role abroad.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and Service Employees International Union are supporting the boycott, as are some local unions and labor councils. The United Steelworkers are assisting a lawsuit filed on behalf of Colombian unions against Coke.

The AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor federations have yet to join the campaign — a crucial next step that unionists should press for.

Coke's not-so-refreshing record. A major spur for the boycott is Coke's association with rightwing thugs who kidnap, torture, and murder activists to suppress labor organizing in Colombia. Since 1989, eight union leaders at Coke bottling plants have been murdered by rightwing paramilitary forces.

William Mendoza, vice president of the Barrancabermeja, Colombia, section of Sinaltrainal, the Colombian Food and Drink Workers Union, recently toured the U.S. Northwest to publicize the campaign.

Three of his co-workers were assassinated during contract negotiations with Coke subsidiaries. In June 2002, an attempt was made to kidnap his four-year-old daughter. Men-doza is forced to live apart from his family and travel in an armored car with a bodyguard.

Behind the violence is Coke's desire to make its bottling plants union-free. "They want to impose casual, part-time labor, drive down our wages and working conditions," Mendoza explains.

Twelve years ago, 96 percent of Coke's workers in Colombia were unionized, and 96 percent had full-time, permanent jobs. Today, only 4 percent of the jobs are full-time and permanent, and the Sinaltrainal union is down to 300 members, a fraction of its former strength. Forty-five union members have relocated due to assassination threats.

The danger to Sinaltrainal members is not unique, but part of a larger pattern of violence. About 4,000 unionists have been murdered in recent decades, earning Colombia the undisputed title as the most dangerous place to belong to a labor organization.

"They were assassinated by paramilitary forces who accuse us of being an obstacle to investment and development in Colombia. But what we are about as trade unionists is to ensure that the collective bargaining agreements that are signed, particularly with multinational corporations, give a bit more of a share to the working people of Colombia," Mendoza told an ILWU convention in 2003.

While unions struggle to bring a living wage to Colombia's workers, its farmers struggle to survive despite global trade rules that favor mega-corporations like Coke.

Tie-in to Plan Colombia. Human rights organizations have shown that the murders are overwhelmingly performed by rightwing paramilitaries with ties to Colombia's official military, which receives much of the over $3 billion in aid from Plan Colombia.

Plan Colombia is supposedly aimed at stopping the production of coca leaves for making cocaine. But "free trade" policies that make other crops less lucrative are causing many farmers to turn to coca to survive. And, while the U.S. constantly imperils the livelihood of coca farmers with its drug war, it gives special permission to Coke to use an extract from coca in its drink!

Working people around the world increasingly understand that when a multinational corporation like Coke is allowed to thwart unions and depress living standards in Colombia, standards are lowered internationally. In standing behind Sinaltrainal, workers and students are standing up for their own future.

For more information on the boycott, visit www.killercoke.org. For a sample union resolution supporting the boycott, go to www.socialism.com.

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.