The Guardian August 7, 2002


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 pww@pww.org

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