The incandescent red and white logo of Coca-Cola – the world’s fastest selling non-alcoholic beverage – has long secured its niche as the global mascot of The American Dream and the successes and happiness rendered by capitalism.
Ongoing abuses suffered by Latin American Coca-Cola workers demonstrate that such success often comes at a terrible price. Specifically, the multinational has been riding on the back of Colombia’s dirty war on social protest –a war that has engendered the paramilitary’s hounding of food and beverage union SINALTRAINAL. The message behind the violence and threats of violence is always the same: “Dissolve the union or else…”
This repression has helped Panamco S.A, Coca-Cola’s local franchisee, to drastically reduce their production costs by minimising salaries and firing over five-thousand workers whilst doubling their production, and their profits.
The litany of abuses suffered at the hands of the paramilitaries includes the assassination of eight workers who were local leaders, three union members have been forced into exile, over sixty live under the shadow of death threats and some forty-eight others have been displaced.
Union President Javier Correa describes conditions. "The paramilitaries have graffitied threats and accusations against us on the walls of the bottling plants. These plants have become like concentration camps. The army patrols the buildings. There is so much repression that union workers are even followed into the toilet. One worker killed himself. In his suicide note he blamed Coca-Cola.”
And he explains the corporation’s attitude: “Coca-Cola has turned from a time of exploitation to a time of slavery. Because the workers continue to resist this oppression the paramilitaries now try to kidnap family members, they’ve burnt union headquarters and destroyed whatever evidence they can so we are unable to bring a case against them. If SINALTRAINAL is dissolved," adds Correa "we face assassinations".
William Mendoza is SINALTRAINAL branch President in Barrancameja – an oil rich town at the epicentre of Colombia’s conflict. The paramilitaries attempted to kidnap his daughter last year. Mendoza describes SINALTRAINAL as “under siege… the Barrancameja plant manager tells the paramilitaries that we are terrorists. We have become military targets. Would-be union members at the Coca-Cola plant now see joining SINALTRAINAL as like signing one’s own death sentence.”
The Colombian state has neither investigated, brought to justice nor punished those responsible for the killings.
So with help from the American Steelworkers Union, a federal court case has been put forward against Coca-Cola in the U.S. to gain reparation for the victims. Panamco has responded by taking SINALTRAINAL to the Colombian courts – renowned for corruption – with charges of calumny.
Failed and abused by both the Colombian system and Coca-Cola, SINALTRAINAL has turned to the people and the international community to explain their crisis.
Since July last year three International Public Hearings have taken place, the first in Atlanta in July, the second in Brussels in October and the final one in Bogotá on 5th December 2002. These hearings were a formidable expression of resistance. The aim? To denounce and combat the devastating effects of terrorism: both by the Colombian state and by the multinational companies.
All those who took part in the hearings have pledged to campaign, consolidate the solidarity network and endeavour to start breaking the colossal Coca-Cola culture. “The obstacles are big”, acknowledges Pedro Marecha, the union’s defiant lawyer, “but we will overcome them.”
SINALTRAINAL leader Carlos Julía gave an unforgettable testimony at the Bogotá hearing. He told the 500-strong audience:
“When you drink Coca-Cola remember that you are contributing to a process which sews unemployment, hunger and pain. The young, happy image projected by Coca-Cola masks the suffering and the return of profits from Colombia to the U.S. We ask Coca-cola to stop killing and you to stop drinking Coke.”