Globalising labour against Coca-Cola
by Mansur Johnson I first met Luis Adolfo Cardona in Bogota, Colombia. He was clearly traumatised. He told my Witness for Peace labour delegation that on December 5, 1996, he'd witnessed the murder of Isidro Segundo Gil inside a Coca-Cola plant. Gil was Secretary General of the National Food Workers' Union, SINALTRAINAL, at the Carepa plant in the department of Antioquia, and a Coca-Cola employee. He was the union's chief negotiator during a collective bargaining session almost seven years ago, when he was shot in the head. To this day his murderer has not been caught. As if witnessing the murder of a union brother at work wasn't shock enough, Cardona himself was slated for summary execution by the paramilitaries, and was kidnapped the same day. At an opportune moment, he slipped away and ran to a police station. Cardona said there were too many witnesses for the police to refuse to help him. He fled the city with his wife and daughter and two changes of clothes. After meeting our delegation in Bogota, Cardona had to flee again. He was being stalked by unidentified individuals. Today, he lives in Washington, DC, in an apartment with two other exiled union leaders, thanks to a joint AFL-CIO/US Labour Department effort. In April 2003, he has to go back to Colombia. I wrote to Coca-Cola CEO Douglas Daft for a reaction, saying I was concerned that Coca-Cola was complicit in the murder of unionists and was trying to reduce the union through threats and intimidation. I received a response from Jeffrey Distler, a Coca-Cola Consumer Affairs Specialist. He wrote, "The company regards the charges of responsibility for the murder and torture of union members as especially preposterous." I had seen the Coca-Cola plant in Barrancabermeja in January 2002. The paramilitaries took control in Barranca in 2000. There's a ten-foot-high security fence around the plant. Only approved persons or personnel could enter. Surely the Carepa plant, where the murderer of Isidro Gil entered, killed and left, had similar security. Nevertheless, Distler informed me, "A comprehensive and thorough investigation of the facts of this case has revealed no evidence to support the allegations made against the company and our bottling partners." Coca-Cola's "comprehensive and thorough investigation" must have overlooked questioning the manager of Coca-Cola's Carepa plant on the day of the murder. Arosto Milan Mosquera, who has since been moved to a different Coca-Cola plant, would probably not tell investigators what he told some union members. According to Cardona, manager Mosquera, when he was drunk, told a few union members that he had spoken to a local paramilitary commander, Cepillo, saying that, if the union protested, he'd tell Cepillo to exterminate all of them. Another interesting interview Coca-Cola investigators probably never had would have been with Rigoberto Marin, the production manager the day of the murder at the Coca-Cola plant. Marin has also moved on; he is now a paramilitary leader in Amaga Suroeste. Government complicit On July 20-22, a delegation from SINALTRAINAL participated in a demonstration and public hearings on the charges against Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Ga., where its international headquarters is located. The Colombians appealed for support from US labour and the American public. Javier Correa, head of SINALTRAINAL, said the trade unionists were in the US seeking international solidarity because the Colombian Government was complicit in the persecution of unionists. Evidence of state complicity, SINALTRAINAL attorney Pedro Mahecha Avila said, includes not only the impunity with which crimes are committed, but also the use of the military and courts to harass the union with unwarranted searches and false charges. The dysfunctional justice system in Colombia cannot force the Colombian military to comply with its rulings. One prominent conviction, highly touted by the US State Department to show Colombia's progress in human rights, that of General Alvaro Velandia Hurtado, was overturned in July on a technical pretext, and the Colombian Council of State reinstated him in the army with seven years' back pay. According to Marino Cordova, leader of the Afro-Colombia Displaced People's Group, AFRODES, another Colombian general, Rito Alejo Rio, and President- elect Alvaro Uribe Velez, then governor of neighbouring Antioquia, were responsible for the joint paramilitary-army raid on his village, Rio Sucio, in Choco, on December 20, 1996. That raid, reported in the Colombian press as a skirmish between the military and the guerrillas, caused Marino Cordova and 20,000 other Afro- Colombians to become displaced people. Death threats and harassment Correa, who has himself experienced both harassing searches and false charges, recited the following facts at the Atlanta hearing: * 11 union members tortured; * 5 union members survivors of attempted murder; * 61 union members threatened with death; * 7 union members assassinated, (three were involved in collective bargaining at the time of their murder); * the wife of Isidro Segundo Gil killed; * 74 union members taken hostage; * 43 searches in homes and offices; * 22 falsely accused of being subversives and held six months before charges were dropped. Correa reported that 76 per cent of the 10,583 Coca-Cola workers are subcontracted, meaning they received less than subsistence wages. He said the Coca-Cola hierarchy has met with Carlos Castano, leader of the so-called auto-defence force of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitaries. The Coca-Cola managers are participating in the terror campaign, he charged. Workers thrown out SINALTRAINAL, which once numbered 5,400 members, now has 2,300 members, Correa said. Attrition in any workforce through layoffs is normal, but, he asked, what about the methods used by Coca-Cola? In 1999, Correa said, 70 SINALTRAINAL employees of the Embonar company were abruptly thrown out of work when Coca-Cola took away Embonar's bottling franchise. Once the union was eliminated, Coca-Cola bought the plant and restarted production under another name, Panamco Colombia, SA. Subsequent suits by Coca-Cola, under the name of Panamco Colombia, against SINALTRAINAL show a continuing pattern of harassment, Correa charged. At one point, Panamco Colombia filed criminal conspiracy charges against the union leadership for exercising its right of association. Last year, Correa issued an Urgent Action Alert charging Coca-Cola with use of "intimidation tactics to respond to our demands and to block negotiations". In another alert this February, Correa wrote, "As always, in the days leading up to re-negotiation of collective agreement with Coca-Cola bottlers of Panamco Colombia Inc., repression intensifies. Union offices attacked A new lawsuit is filed, union offices are attacked, numerous workers have to flee due to death threats, and another round of layoffs occurs." In July 2001 the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the International Labour Rights Fund, a Washington, DC, based nonprofit group, filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola in US District Court on behalf of SINALTRAINAL. Under the Alien Tort Claims Act, foreigners are allowed to seek relief in US courts from US companies that operate abroad. The union lawsuit charges that "Coke and the other defendants violated clear standards of international law by maintaining a willful campaign of terror against members and leaders of SINALTRAINAL", USWA attorney Dan Kovalik said. Kovalik presented arguments before the court this June. A decision is being awaited in the case. In a handout specially produced for the Atlanta protest, Coca-Cola said, "Allegations made by the protestors today are completely false." The purpose of the demonstration, according to Coca-Cola, was "nothing more than an effort to generate publicity using the name of the Coca-Cola company." Coca-Cola further claimed that "bottling partners have on-going, normal relations with labour unions in Colombia." If that is so, why did Javier Correa come to Atlanta to seek US support against Coca-Cola goon squads? In response to the union lawsuit, Coca-Cola (under the Panamco Colombia name) filed slander charges against Correa and other union leaders. This explains why Coca-Cola's representative wrote in his letter to me, "The company believes that the unfounded allegations are an insult." This gives them an excuse to sue for slander. With the slander allegation, Coca-Cola is using the courts and the financial power of its worldwide empire to harass in yet another way the already stressed and depleted union. How could Coca-Cola's Distler answer me with a straight face that SINALTRAINAL's "charges are calculated for public relations shock value"? Rather they represent for Coca-Cola a public relations nightmare. Distler claims that the facts have been publicised "primarily in the hope of furthering political and social objectives." This part is true. In a declaration issued at the hearing in Atlanta, Correa said, "This is an expression of the struggle of the Colombian people and the international social organisations to overcome the devastating effects of state terrorism and the policies of the transnational corporations." Coca-Cola's slander charges and previous unfounded accusations "demonstrate a clear pattern of animosity and ill will", part of a systematic attempt to "weaken and ultimately smash the union", he said. In the face of Coca-Cola's refusal to accept responsibility, pay reparations, or remove managers with ties to the paramilitaries, the struggle may be a long one. However, one thing seems clear: Coca-Cola, the Colombian Government, the Colombian military and their proxies, the paramilitaries, do not support the right of workers to bargain collectively without deadly interference. We will know this is no longer true when we see the end of impunity for crimes against humanity in Colombia, and respect for human and labour rights.
* * *Mansur Johnson is a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, Local 415, in Tucson, Ariz. The author can be reached at email@example.com