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Coca-Cola hunger strike ends in union win

By Jana Silverma | Colombia Week | March 30, 2004

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A 12-day-old hunger strike to protest Coca-Cola labor policies in Colombia ended March 27 in a rare victory for the National Food Industry Workers Union (Sinaltrainal). The union suspended the protest when Femsa, a Mexico-based bottler whose major shareholder is the Atlanta company, agreed to negotiate a transfer of 91 union members slated for layoff.

Femsa's Colombia chief, Juan Carlos Jaramillo, also agreed the 30 hunger strikers will receive two weeks of paid vacation for physical recuperation and that the company will purchase a national newspaper advertisement discouraging paramilitary reprisals against them.

The protest began March 15 when the hunger strikers and their supporters set up tents and round-the-clock picket lines in eight Colombian cities to protest 11 Femsa plant closings last year. The union says the company pressured 500 workers to resign in exchange for a severance payment despite their right under Colombian law and a union contract to transfer to another plant.

During the hunger strike, the union's 87 members in the war-torn northern city of Barrancabermeja received substantial support from church officials, the Popular Women's Organization (OFP), the Union of Workers of Municipal Public Services Corporations (Sintraemdes) and the oil industry's United Workers Union (USO), according to Juan Carlos Galvis, vice president of the local Sinaltrainal chapter.

The chapter's three hunger strikers suffered dehydration, emaciation and kidney problems. Plant managers required them to work their usual eight-hour shifts and disciplined them when their weakened state reduced their productivity. Two of the hunger strikers were eventually admitted to the hospital. Departing from standard practice, management also refused to allow union leaders to hold meetings during the hunger strike.

"If Coca-Cola gets away with the firings, it will just add to the already severe social problems we face," Galvis said by telephone before the union victory.

On March 26, Femsa finally agreed to begin meeting with union leaders in hopes of ending the hunger strike. Galvis said the company changed course due to solidarity in Colombia and from overseas. Unionists and human rights activists around the world had sent protest messages to Coca-Cola executives in Atlanta. And students in a dozen U.S. cities organized March 23 solidarity actions.

An international boycott of Coca-Cola products, meanwhile, continues. Since 1990, according to Sinaltrainal, nine of the union's members have been murdered, five of its leaders have gone to jail on terrorism charges, and 65 of its activists have received death threats. Alleging company support for the attacks, the union filed a 2001 lawsuit against Coca-Cola and its Colombian affiliates in the U.S. District Court in Miami.

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