The Guardian May 1, 2002


Union takes Coke to court over trade union deaths

by Janice Hamilton

Coca-Cola Amatil is sticking to its prediction of a 10-15 percent increase 
in profit margins despite being sued over death squad claims.

Trade union leaders are suing the soft-drinks company Coca-Cola in the 
United States for allegedly hiring right-wing death squads to impose a 
reign of terror on workers at its Colombian bottling plant. Coca-Cola 
denied responsibility by claiming that the plants bottling Coca-Cola were 
run by subsidiaries and not the Coca-Cola Company.

In Manhattan USA on April 17, hundreds of unionists rallied in solidarity 
with their Colombian comrades outside the Coca-Cola Corporation's Annual 
General Meeting.

The action was designed to draw attention to the appallingly high number of 
union workers, including employees in plants owned by Coca-Cola 
subsidiaries assassinated each year in Colombia.

Sinatrainal the union representing 2300 food workers in Colombia including 
500 employees at Coca-Cola, claims that Coca Cola bears indirect 
responsibility for the killing of an employee. When union leader Isidro 
Segundo Gil, was shot dead, the union was involved in contract 
negotiations. Then the following day, the military appeared and demanded 
that all union members resign.

According to Luis Javier Correa Suarez, President of Sinaltrainal, "the 
situation in Colombia is very grave". In his 20 years working for Coca-
Cola, he has never seen such miserable prospects for workers.

Workers suffer constant harassment and intimidation by the right-wing 
paramilitary group, United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

"Most of the threats and intimidation were forthcoming during periods of 
collective bargaining", Mr Suarez said. "Many union offices have been 
sprayed with gunfire. More than 60 union officials are in hiding."

Last year more than 50 union leaders were killed in Colombia and more than 
1500 in the past 10 years. According to the United Workers Central, since 
1995, 3800 unionists have been assassinated, and many others have 
"disappeared" or been kidnapped.

The paramilitaries have declared the death penalty against all union 
leaders. Mr Suarez also said there was full complicity between the AUC and 
employers, the state and the paramilitary.

"Corporations like Coca Cola benefit from low-wage labour in Colombia and 
turn a blind eye to the murder and union-busting because it benefits their 
bottom line", he said.

There are more union workers killed annually there than anywhere else in 
world.

Although the US embassy and the headquarters of Coca-Cola were informed 
about the incidents at the time, no action was taken concerning the killing 
or the subsequent forced resignations of workers.

Despite the wave of deaths and violence in Colombia, aid to the Colombian 
armed forces has grown rapidly.

Under Plan Colombia, the US has tunnelled over US$1 billion into the 
country, entirely for military assistance.

The main aim of Plan Colombia is to protect transnational investors and to 
eliminate any movements for social change within Colombia, not wage war on 
drugs.

One of the objectives of the court action is to pressure the Colombian and 
US Governments to comply with the conventions of the International Labour 
Organisation and the Geneva Accords on Human Rights.

Colombian unions would like to see those responsible for the murders 
brought to justice.

"We want to strip off the mask hiding the involvement of transnational 
corporations and countries in our internal conflicts."

As those who are guilty of these crimes are treated with impunity, there is 
no other option but to pursue justice in another country like the United 
States.

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