Colombia's agony, Coca-Cola's responsibility, Americans' solidarity

Ari Paul
30 August 2005

Since 1989, eight union leaders have been assassinated at Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia. According to a statement from the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke in New York: “Hundreds of other Coke workers have been tortured, kidnapped and/or illegally detained by violent paramilitaries, often working closely with plant managements.” As more light is shed on these incidents, a coalition of students and labour activists seeking to end the violence is growing in both numbers and influence. To challenge the bloody repression of union activists in Colombia, this movement is hitting the Atlanta-based beverage company where it hurts: right on the profit margin.

Student governments on college campuses in the United States and abroad have passed resolutions urging their administrations to divest from Coca-Cola; schools such as Bard College (New York), Lake Forest College (Illinois), and Oberlin College (Ohio), among many others, have campus-wide bans on Coke products, meaning that no function of the school can enter into a contract with the company or sell the product on campus. There are already rumblings about bans in the works at the nation’s largest schools, such as the University of Michigan, New York University, and Rutgers University (New Jersey). One of Italy’s largest universities and three Irish colleges are onboard.

Dozens of union locals around the country have passed similar measures and are respecting the boycott. Britain’s largest public service union, Unison, which brought in nearly 150,000 new members just last year, has signed on.

It seems that more and more college students, who are defined as politically apathetic by the popular press, are being drawn to this particular cause. “It really caught people by surprise,” said Andrea Coronil of The Coke Coalition at the University of Michigan. “I think the fact that, independent of any student organisations, there are thousands of people mobilising in Colombia, putting their lives on the line. I think that kind of visibility has inspired students.”

The student government, highlighting Michigan’s Code of Conduct – which stipulates that the university has the duty to cut contracts with companies guilty of human rights crimes – voted to urge the school to respect the ban. But the administration is stalling, Coronil said.

Be that as it may, student support appears to be in the workers’ favour, at least at Michigan. “There hasn’t been any organised opposition,” she said. “Beyond a few isolated things, I haven’t heard a lot of arguments against the campaign.”

Coca-Cola is fighting back. Earlier this year, the company sent a representative to a lecture series at Michigan’s business school on “surviving scrutiny.” Several activists handed out factsheets to attendees; others planted questions during the Q & A period that challenged the company’s labour practices in Colombia.

“The Coca-Cola representative was almost unable to respond. I’m sure that got back to the company,” said Coronil.

A pattern of violence

The boycotts of Coca-Cola, and the wider exposure of the violence directed towards labour organisers in Colombia, are part of a greater context of activism that is examining United States government and corporate intervention in Latin America.

US involvement in Colombia is deep-rooted. Since the US started building up the frontlines in the “war on drugs” during Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s, Colombia has become a primary focus of US Latin American foreign and security policy and for the US crusade against the global narcotics trade.

In the summer of 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a $1.3 billion aid package called “Plan Colombia” into law. Colombia now receives more annual US military aid than any other nation, except for Israel and Egypt.

While this aid is ostensibly for the purpose of fighting drug cartels, Colombia also uses it to fight the leftwing guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and Army of National Liberation (ELN) as well as the rightwing paramilitary faction, the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC). The US government considers that all three of these groups are terrorist organisations which profit from drug trafficking.

The US maintains 800 troops and 300 civilian contractors in the country to fight the drug trade. The Colombian military also sends one of Latin America’s largest batches of soldiers to the notorious US army training facility, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (Whisc – formerly the School of the Americas Soa) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.

Declassified Pentagon materials show that the Whisc/Soa has a long history of training Latin American officers in the art of torturing and assassinating non-violent, leftwing activists during the cold war. So this history of intervention affects labour unions in Colombia acutely.

Peter Clark of the US Office on Colombia has noted that Colombia has the highest rate of assassination of trade unionists in the world and that the bulk of them have been carried out by the rightwing paramilitaries. The 2003 report on Colombia published by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) notes: “The State not only fails to prevent such crimes, but also fails to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.”

Coca-Cola has long recognised the violence that has taken place at its Colombian facilities over the last sixteen years. However, it maintains that the crimes are being perpetrated by the paramilitaries independently and that bottling-plant managers have not been involved. The company, they maintain, is thereby not guilty.

“Colombia is a dangerous place because of its violent internal conflict, which affects union activists and other civilians from all walks of life,” Lori Billingsley, a company spokesperson, told Bloomberg News in March 2005. She noted that the company “has publicly condemned violence in Colombia on multiple occasions,” and is beefing up security at its Colombia bottling plants, according to the news service. The company has maintained that managers and non-union workers at Coca-Cola plants have also been targeted by the paramilitaries, ostensibly indicating that union activists are not being targeted exclusively.

Ray Rogers, the director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, doesn’t buy it. “Coca-Cola has taken advantage of a tragic situation,” he said. “The Colombian government, multinationals, and the paramilitaries all have one thing in common. They don’t want any social movement, and particularly a strong labour or human rights movement that can challenge their authority or their brutality. The proof is there. The paramilitaries constantly collaborated with managers of the bottlers. They socialised. The managers gave them free Coca-Cola.”

But the company claims it actively fights the violence. “In addition to publicly condemning violence, our business system actively works with local unions and the Colombian government to provide safety benefits to union members including transportation to and from work, loans for secure housing, loans to improve security of union offices, paid cellular phones for emergency use, shift and job changes, and legal aid and support,” Billingsley said.

Perhaps Coca-Cola falls under particular suspicion because of its record on trades union activity in Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s.

A booklet published by the London-based Latin American Bureau in England says:

“For nine years the 450 workers at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Guatemala City fought a battle with their employers for their jobs, their trade union and their lives. Three times they occupied the plant – on the last occasion for thirteen months. Three General Secretaries of their union were murdered and five other workers killed. Four more were kidnapped and have disappeared.”

A series of international boycotts and protests followed, in which the trade unions were able to secure real advances in their demands of the company – part of a continuous struggle.

In search of justice

The culpability in relation to these Colombian murders is still to be determined in court. The pro-government paramilitaries have long targeted anyone associated with leftwing causes, especially labour unions. Is it possible, as the company appears to claim, that these union leaders were victims caught in the unfortunate crossfire of Colombia’s long and messy political conflict?

In the particular case of Isidro Segundo Gil, who was killed at his workplace in Carepa by paramilitary forces in December 1996, both Gil’s union (Sinaltrainal) and the United Steelworkers of America (Uswa) allege that a plant manager directly ordered the murder. The Uswa and the International Labour Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a lawsuit in a US district court in 2001 on Gil and Sinaltrainal’s behalf that seeks to hold Coca-Cola accountable for any violence directed towards its employees at bottling facilities. The lawsuit states that the company “contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilize extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders.”

Coca-Cola says nothing can be proven to link the company to Gil’s murder. In fact, on a website called Cokefacts.org, the company says that the US district court in Miami dismissed the case in 2003 citing a lack of factual evidence.

“This is where Coke tries to mislead people,” Rogers said. “The case was dismissed, but at the same time the judge said the case could continue against Coke’s bottlers in Colombia. When the judge dismissed the case, it had nothing to do with the merits of the case.” While the plaintiffs could not establish in the District Court that the Coca-Cola Company was directly at fault, Rogers said, “The judge never authored any opportunity for discovery for the plaintiffs to provide proof or information that Coke does control the bottlers.”

And the company does control the bottlers. While Coca-Cola has often stated that bottling-plant managers act independently, the influence of the company is undeniable. “They pack the boards [of bottling companies] with their own people, people that represent the Coca-Cola Company,” Rogers said. “You have Coca-Cola workers wearing Coca-Cola uniforms, working in buildings with Coca-Cola signs.”

The company continues to stress its innocence, but Rogers claims that Coca-Cola has yet to agree on an independent investigation. While attending a meeting on an impending campus-wide boycott on Coke products with student representatives at Carleton College, a company representative told the group that the company had been exonerated in an independent investigation. The auditor of the case was, however, a law firm called White and Case, a firm that acts as Coca-Cola’s legal representatives. One of White and Case’s executive partners is on the corporate board of the largest Colombian Coca-Cola bottler and is a defendant in the Uswa/ILRF lawsuit, Rogers said.

Rogers has requested that the White and Case investigation be made public, but Coca-Cola has yet to disclose the findings.

The Uswa/ILRF lawsuit could set an important precedent. If the unions emerge from this case victorious in the US Court, there will be more pressure on companies like Coca-Cola to take more substantial security measures at their bottling plants in Colombia. It could also prompt companies to pressure the US and Colombian governments to contain paramilitary activity more aggressively. Such pressure from the influential corporate community might lead to a more substantial review and possible reform of US policy in Colombia.

Rogers is confident that the college campus boycotts will grow. Many individual union locals in the US and abroad recognise the boycott, but now he hopes that the AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for most American unions, will pull all labour union investments out of the company. And since the Union Theological Seminary in New York may also join the boycott, the possibility arises of bringing the religious community into the fight against Coca-Cola’s alleged practices in Colombia. “Our campaign is very strong,” he said proudly.

Should the company be concerned about the prospect of more student-led boycotts? Probably. The 18-30 year old demographic is a primary moneymaker for soft-drink companies, according to industry experts. Coca-Cola’s financial performance has faltered over the last few years. It has lost significant market share to its competitors, it has failed to capitalise on its rival Pepsi’s model of venturing into other industries, and its share price has dropped significantly since 1998.

If boycotts among students and union activists continue, and Coke loses its presence on more college campuses, it could yield devastating numbers for its shareholders, in turn applying further pressure on the company. A new era of student and citizen activism may have decisive effects in the United States and Colombia alike.

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