The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) statement opposing the Coke boycott (posted on their website 11 July 2003 but since apparently withdrawn) is remarkable both for its unfortunate timing and its deeply disappointing content. I hope and expect that the Colombian union SINALTRAINAL will respond in due course, but right now the union's focus is on the launching the boycott both inside Colombia and internationally. These observations are no more than interim points in defence of SINALTRAINAL's boycott call.
The boycott is complimentary to the legal case that has been brought in the Florida civil courts under the Alien Torts Act on behalf of the relatives of the victims. This case has set a trend, a similar action against the US coal company Drummond Coporation has just been lodged in Alabama and a case against Occidental Oil is pending. The accumulation of the evidence on which these cases are founded is itself a dangerous and difficult process. One of the key targets of the paramilitaries are precisely those who gather such evidence. The additional dangers have been worth it, for the first time US corporations are being put on the defensive. This is already a tremendous step forward.
SINALTRAINAL has been at pains to consult widely within its membership, with the Colombian trade union federations and internationally. The rate of unionisation in Colombia's private sector is extremely low, it takes special qualities in a union organisation to survive. Last December I observed SINALTRAINAL's six-monthly assembly of branch representatives, and was able to see at least in part the union's culture which is based on participation and mobilisation.
The union organises in Nestle and Kraft as well as Coca Cola. The delegates had a full say in developing the union's negotiating tactics with each employer. All of these local leaders live on the envelope of danger to themselves and their families, yet they refuse to buckle under the tremendous psychological pressure. Their commitment is matter of fact, deeply moving, heroic. It deserves recognition and respect.
SINALTRAINAL is a trade union, that is it organisers workers in the food and drinks sector. But the concept of trade unionism applied is inclusive, not narrow. SINALTRAINAL works with other unions, human rights organisations and social movements in a network called "Campaign Against Impunity – Colombia Claims Justice". The union sponsors educational outreach work in the community. I have heard a rumour that such activity is held against the union. How ridiculous and petty! And SINALTRAINAL is fully involved in the work of the CUT federation. These two factors are not in contradiction, surely working with other social groups as equals strengthens the trade union movement.
There is a political issue at stake. SINALTRAINAL is an example of what has been called 'social movement unionism'. There are other unions following this approach in Colombia, the most notable being the public sector workers union SINTRAEMCALI. This is in stark contrast to the Colombian government's preferred model, what Uribe calls '’participatory unions'. What he means is unions that keep their heads down and their mouths shut, collaborationist unions co-opted to the neo-liberal project – so long as it doesn't hit them too hard. SINALTRAINAL really does not have the luxury of a choice. It is fightback or perish.
The call for an international boycott did not come out of the blue. SINALTRAINAL has been trying to get Coca Cola to respond to its complaints for years. There is no effective recourse under Colombian law, hence the necessity of an internationally projected campaign to bring pressure to bear on the employer. Working with its growing support network, and with the endorsement of its own federation the CUT and the CGTD, SINALTRAINAL initiated three public hearings on Coca Cola and human rights.
We are on the verge of a breakthrough in bringing the plight of Colombian trade unionists to international public attention. The choice for us is between protecting Coca Cola's brand or mobilising popular solidarity. Have no doubt, the boycott has only just begun, and it will be escalated over the next year.