Cola Wars

Striking unionists battle Coke and paramilitaries

Mischa Gaus

Protesting a mass firing of union leaders, 30 Coca-Cola workers in Colombia began a hunger strike March 15, which was met by death threats from paramilitaries known to have worked on the company’s behalf in the past.

A group of 91 workers — nearly three-fourths union leaders — was dismissed in February after Coca-Cola closed several plants. Protesters say the company targets union shops, and the hunger strikers in eight Colombian cities demand reinstatement of the fired workers.

A group affiliated with the country’s most notorious paramilitaries, the AUC, released a statement declaring war on the union leaders and promising to finish them all off” if they do not leave the country in three months.

Paramilitaries acting with at least tacit approval of Colombian Coca-Cola officials are suspected in the murder of seven Coca-Cola unionists in recent years and the kidnapping and torture of others. About 3,600 Colombian union members have been killed in the last two decades, most at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries.

Daily updates from the hunger strikers detail threatening phone calls, police harassment, government indifference and company disciplinary hearings for strikers.

SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian Coca-Cola union, says 500 workers have been forced into retirement since September by consolidation, and when 91 workers refused the lump-sum buyout, they were fired. The workers’ collective bargaining agreement says they should be transferred, and even though a Colombian judge in January upheld that principle, the country’s labor ministry ruled against the workers.

The ministry gives mixed results depending upon who is in power,” says Daniel Kovalik, counsel for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Coca-Cola filed in a Florida court on behalf of tortured and murdered union members. Certainly, under the current [Colombian President Alvaro] Uribe administration, it is antagonistic toward the workers.”

Coca-Cola called the hunger strike unfortunate,” saying it treated all employees fairly.

Anti-sweatshop student groups are pressuring their administrations to request an investigation of the violence against Coca-Cola workers. One school — DePaul University in Chicago — has asked the Worker Rights Consortium, which monitors compliance with the codes of conduct that corporations sign with colleges, to step in.

Acting at the behest of its affiliate schools, the WRC has investigated apparel factories worldwide. An agency official said examining Coca-Cola would be a natural extension of the group’s scope because some member schools have licensing contracts with the company.

We see this as the same issue, just in a different industry,” says Jon Rodney, a University of California-Berkeley anti-sweatshop activist. The university’s logo and image is tainted by this kind of exploitation and violence.”

Mischa Gaus is an editor of Labor Notes magazine, the largest independent union publication in the United States.
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