Coca-Killer: The Whole Story

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Wayne Platts explains why Colombian trade unionists are calling for an international boycott of Coca-Cola, as well as demanding that the soft drink giant prints a memoriam of murdered workers on its products:




On 31st August 2002 Adolfo de Jesus Munera Lopez was visiting his mother in Barrio el Bosque in the city of Barranquilla, the city in which he also resided and worked. It was almost 7:00pm as he was approached by two gunmen and shot dead in the doorway of his mother’s house.



He had been sacked from his place of work in 1997, because of his trade union work for the food and beverages workers union SINALTRAINAL. In the same year several SINALTRAINAL leaders were imprisoned in Bucaramanga on trumped up terrorism charges: What did these people have in common? They all were or had been employees at Coca-Cola. Unfortunately these are not isolated incidents, but rather the norm for Coca-Cola in Colombia.



14 trade union leaders from SINALTRAINAL alone have been murdered since 1986, as well as the wife of one of the assassinated trade unionists. 48 Coca-Cola workers have been displaced, 67 are living under constant death threats, families of trade unionists have been threatened and kidnapped, demonstrations have been violently attacked by police and union offices have been bombed.



According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions 184 of the world’s 213 confirmed killings of trade unionists in 2002 occurred in Colombia. The repression has achieved the desired results of lower trade union membership and cheap labour.



"The paramilitaries have graffitied threats and accusations against us on the walls of the bottling plants. The army patrols the buildings. There is so much repression that union workers are even followed to the toilet. One worker killed himself. In his suicide note he blamed Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola has turned from a time of exploitation to a time of slavery. Because the workers continue to resist this oppression the paramilitaries now try to kidnap family members, they’ve burnt union headquarters and destroyed whatever evidence, so we are unable to bring a case against them," says Javier Correa, the President of SINALTRAINAL



Union decimated by terror



SINALTRAINAL membership has dropped to 2,300 nationwide as a result of the repression. Paramilitaries have forced some trade union members to renounce their trade union membership at gun point. Due to the threats SINALTRAINAL membership at Coca-Cola bottling plants has fallen from 2500 to 500. At the beginning of the 1990s the 10,000 workers employed by Coca-Cola earned between US$600 and US$700 a month. Today only 2,500 workers remain, only 500 with fixed contracts, plus 7,5000 subcontractors on an average of US$150 a month.



In addition to the intimidation from the company and paramilitaries, SINALTRAINAL has also been subjected to repression from the state which is trying to drive through its neoliberal politics at any price. The tactics used by the Colombian government are similar to those used by governments worldwide, especially after 11th September, which try to criminalise opponents and associate them with terrorism.



In 2002 several SINALTRAINAL leaders were imprisoned in Bucaramanga on the recommendations of the manager of the Coca-Cola plant there. The charges were falsified with the use of unreliable police witnesses in an attempt to link them to the left-wing guerilla. At the same time as accusing trade unionists of being terrorists the management of Coca-Cola bottling firms and the government rely on the right-wing paramilitary terror organisation AUC, to carry out their dirty work.



"Our union is under siege. The Barrancabermeja plant manager tells the paramilitaries that we are terrorists. We have become military targets. Would-be union members at Coca-Cola now see joining SINALTRAINAL as like signing one’s own death sentence,“ says William Mendoza, President of the Barrancabermeja branch of SINALTRAINAL.



President Uribe’s grand plan



As well as trying to frighten off potential members and eliminating activists, unionists who had been sacked by the company and reinstated by the courts also fell victim to the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries act unhindered by the state security forces, with paramilitary bases often located in the vicinity of army bases with the full knowledge and support of the local commander. The politics of the ultra-right-wing government of Alvaro Uribe have a lot in common with that of the paramilitaries which are little more than the foot troops of Colombia’ elite such as big business, large landowners and drug cartels.



Referring to the murder of 5 trade unionists at Coca-Cola’s Carepa plant in Antioquia between 1994 and 1996, Andy Higginbottom from the UK based Colombia Solidarity Campaign, says:



"Colombia’s current president Alvaro Uribe Vélez was governor of Antioquia at the time. And in many ways the Carepa case exposes the sort of policies that he is attempting to now implement nationally."



When Alvaro Uribe was governor of the Antioquia department , he helped set up "self-defense" groups, the CONVIVIR, which later developed into right-wing paramilitary death squads. According to Higginbottom, the only difference now is that being president he can introduce his plans on a national scale.



Not only Colombia



It seems that Coca-Cola will go to any lengths to stifle union activity. As ludicrous as it may sound, union activist, Rick Bronson, of the teamsters (truck drivers) union in the USA was sacked recently for drinking a can of Pepsi-Cola at work. The company is accusing him of slander against their own product. "Coke is really clutching at straws on this one," commented Jim Santelango, principle officer of the Teamsters local 848, which has filed for unfair dismissal.



Coca-Cola allegedly manipulated market research tests by paying an outside consultant $10,000 to take children to Burger King to buy Frozen Cokes. Burger King claims that as a result of these falsified tests they have invested $65 million on the product. Coca-Cola has also been accused of writing down the values of fountain-drink equipment by $9 million. These allegations caused the multinational’s share price to drop 4% as they became public, according to a Washington Post report dated July 20th, 2003



As a result of the unorthodox practices of Coca-cola, especially in Colombia, a one year boycott of Coca-Cola products from 22nd July 2003 was agreed on at a series of public tribunals held in 2002 by trade unionists in the US, Belgium and Colombia (Coca-Cola was invited but declined to attend). Coca-Cola is admittedly not the only culprit, but it is to be made an example of so that firms like Nestlé which have a similar policy of profits first, people last will rethink what they are doing. A similar boycott was called in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the 6 murders and 4 disappearances of trade unionists in Guatemala. As a result Coca-Cola terminated business with the offending firms.



"We are absolutely convinced as a factual matter that one word from Coca-Cola would stop the campaign of terror against trade leaders in the Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia," comments Terry Collingsworth, Executive Director of the US-based International Labor Rights Fund.



SINALTRAINALS demands in relation to the boycott include: no more assassinations, that Coca-Cola prints a memoriam of the murdered workers on its products, pays full reparations to the victims families and supports an annual forum on human rights.



"When you drink Coca-Cola remember that you are contributing g to a process which sows unemployment, hunger and pain. The young, happy image projected by Coca-Cola masks the suffering and the return of profits from Colombia to the US. We ask Coca-Cola to stop killing and you to stop drinking Coke," says Carlos Juka, SINALTRAINAL leader.



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