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.