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March 2007
Just for the Taste of It
The Satya Interview with Jon Hunt

 

With over 4,000 murdered in the past 15 years, Colombia is notoriously known as the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Believe it or not, Coca-Cola is partly to blame.

While most of the killings have been attributed to right-wing paramilitaries belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) who see their victims as subversives and legitimate targets. But one workers’ union, SINALTRAINAL (the National Union of Food Industry Workers), is simply calling for better working conditions. Meanwhile, workers and union leaders of Colombian Coca-Cola bottling companies live in fear. They face threats, kidnapping, beatings, and murder. They encounter intimidation tactics including illegal reductions of salary, wage suspensions and unsafe working environments—actions largely supported by the Colombian military.

The Campaign for Labor Rights (CLR) is a nonprofit whose mission is to mobilize grassroots support to promote economic and social justice. They have taken on Coca-Cola as a campaign, working to support workers’ struggles and educate the public about the injustices. Ideally, CLR wants Coca-Cola to make certain its bottlers and franchises around the world reject any connection to paramilitaries, violence against trade unionists, and support the rights of workers to organize.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to speak with Jon Hunt, Campaign for Labor Rights National Coordinator, about why Coca-Cola has turned a blind eye to injustices occurring in countries around the world bottling its beverages.

Your website states, “Coca-Cola workers and union leaders in Colombia and Guatemala are under attack.” For those who have not been following the campaign, could you address Coca-Cola’s complicity in unjust slayings and torturing of human beings?
Colombians especially, but also Guatemalans and Filipinos, have faced an amazing amount of violence and harassment from proxies of the Coca-Cola bottling company. In Colombia, over the last 10 years there has been a steady campaign of violence directed at union organizers. The SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian food and beverage workers union, has attempted to organize the bottling plants. But the bottling companies, in response have contracted Colombian paramilitaries to do their dirty work—meaning the murder, kidnapping and torture of hundreds of union organizers, forcing many to live under 24-hour death threat. They often have to live separately from their families and can’t stay in the same place from night to night. In many cases their families can’t either.

To live with such fear…
One particular organizer, William Mendoza was visiting the U.S. a few years ago. He was actually staying at my apartment when he called home to check on his family who was staying at his wife’s parents’ house. His wife told him she had come home that day to a note on the door which said “We know you are here, we have been keeping an eye on you and you may not want to continue to stay here or your kids will get hurt.” This was after they had gone through a pretty good amount of trying to hide their trail and making sure they felt safe. But this is all very common…they just don’t feel safe at any time. There is just a constant sense that someone is waiting for them or watching them. And they can only hope the violence is directed toward them and not their families.

And these are Coca-Cola bottling plants we are talking about?
Well, technically, neither Coca-Cola USA nor Coca-Cola Inc. own the bottling plants. They intentionally maintain less than 49 percent of ownership for the purpose of distancing themselves from these activities. That said, they maintain control of the board in terms of voting rights and membership. And more importantly, the bottling plants exist only because of Coca-Cola.

I don’t understand how these acts go unpunished?
While the U.S. Government has labeled the paramilitaries terrorists, traditionally they have operated with a great deal of impunity, with the Colombia military rarely enforcing any of the laws. It has actually been very clearly documented that the Colombian military has worked directly with the paramilitaries in terms of providing them with the weapons, intelligence, cover and security to carry out their operations. It is so very hard to go against a power that is well funded, well backed and more than willing to use violence and murder as tools. Especially if you are a nonviolent union organizer.

What rights are the unions fighting for?
All they want is to have the right to organize workers. The right to representation and recognition of their union. In most cases they don’t get to the point where they can demand higher wages, shorter working hours or better conditions. What keeps them in this perpetual state is the fact that organizers are simply murdered one after the other. They have to spend so much time defending and protecting themselves, it is hard to really focus on the other issues. The workers want to be able to bargain, to provide for their families and they should be allowed to. Trying to reach that goal is a very basic step, guaranteed by the International Labor Standards—which Colombia is party. It shouldn’t be this way.

Have the workers taken any legal actions?
There have been several cases in which workers in Colombia have attempted to bring in U.S. courts. The ones that name Coca-Cola Inc. have basically been dismissed, while the cases against the bottling companies have been allowed to continue. But these cases have been brought up in Florida to a federal judge by the name of Martinez. He has just recently been linked, I should say they are trying to see just how linked he is to Coca-Cola. He is also a radio commentator for the University of Miami’s football and baseball teams and their athletic department is heavily sponsored by Coca-Cola. So it is a bit of a conflict of interest for him to be hearing the cases, especially since he has dismissed all charges against Coca-Cola Inc. We need to look back at these cases he rather hastily dismissed, and see if it was based on valid reasons or personal interests.

That’s ridiculous! If a better judge is found, do you think legal actions will ensue?
No, not really. While the cases are important, it’s not going to make the difference. I think it is up to the public. People in this country need to know what is going on. They need to understand Coca-Cola, one of the ultimate all-American brands, approves violence in order to guarantee a higher profit. We are talking about the largest beverage company in the world. They are controlling beverage markets to an amazing degree. I just returned from Peru this past week and it is so obvious the power of Coca-Cola in the markets there. They own almost every single beverage on the shelves—the main Coke brands, Fanta, Dasani and San Luise, the oldest Peruvian bottled water. They control the market and ensure they maintain it. Part of capitalism is that you want to maximize your profit and a unionized workforce can hinder that.

Speaking of water, what about other places like India, where Coke has allegedly polluted and depleted water supplies?
Well Coke not only bottles water, but what is Coke? It’s primarily water with sugar and flavors. Coca-Cola has actually gained control over water sources that are very valuable to Indian communities. These resources used to be community owned, or at least it was understood that water was there for the life of people. They should have access to it.

Ironically, Coca-Cola, because they have the resources to advertise so much and because their brand is so well known throughout the world, a lot of people still want to drink it. In some places, Coke is cheaper than water and so people drink Coke. If the water supply is being depleted…by the time people realize what is happening they have reached the point of no return. And in Coke’s case in India, one of their public relations moves has been to announce free water at their plants. You can come and fill up your bottles. In some cases people have to travel further to get the water. Regardless, they are still depleting the water supply not just for drinking but also for crops, livestock, etc.

Look how good we are…come here to get your water.
Exactly. We took it, but you can have some back. But if you play it just right Coke can say, “One of our programs in India is to provide free water to the poor communities where we are located.” Wow! What a wonderful thing. That is very humane of you Coca-Cola.

Why do you think consumers are unaware such bloodshed goes into making their soda?
Here in the U.S. I think it is primarily because media makes no attempt to cover the issue. Coca-Cola is a ‘great American company.’ The idea that they would condone violence is simply untouchable. Besides who wants to think about dead union organizers while drinking their soda? It’s easier to just be unaware and accept Coca-Cola’s denouncement of the accusations. And also a well funded campaign of advertisements with catchy slogans.

Are you asking people to boycott all Coca-Cola products?
It’s hard enough getting them to give up Coke… As an organizer you have to be aware of not overwhelming someone. I’d like you to stop supporting Coca-Cola which means you can’t use any of these 175 other products. It’s all part of that broader critique of capitalism. In general, we have to educate people on how these huge multinational companies work. We need to be able to show the connections, that Coca-Cola—and other multi-nationals—benefits from the free trade agreements that the U.S. pushes upon other countries. It gives them access to those markets to sell their goods and get access to land to grow crops that they turn into products…all the while, they are pushing small farmers off their land. It just creates a big cycle and that is what people need to understand when they look at any major brand. People need to have an understanding that the company exists on exploitation. This entire system requires violence and exploitation to function. It will remain so until individually and as a society we choose to operate in a nonviolent way. We need to show people there are alternatives. We need to make sure the education continues.

Colleges and universities including the University of Michigan, New York University, and Rutgers University, have cancelled or suspended their vending contracts with Coke. Is this helping?
It is raising awareness. If Coke sees enough of these universities, enough unions taking the machines out of their union halls and municipalities and school districts doing the same, they will realize it will affect their profit and it becomes a matter of business. Now it becomes a problem. I really don’t think they will deal with it from a human rights perspective. They are not going to say, “Oh that’s a lot of people being killed because of us. Maybe we should do something.” They are only going to do it when they see their profit is suffering. And then they will make those changes quickly.

When I was in Peru, I met a student from Colombia very familiar with the Coca-Cola struggle. He said it was really good for them to hear universities canceling their contracts. It really empowers the workers to know that people in the U.S. are thinking of them. Especially when Americans know this is where the headquarters are…where Coke is based.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Well, the International Union of Food Workers is pushing for a global workers rights agreement with Coca-Cola. It would be a fairly significant step if they were to sign on. It would be an admission that not only are they aware of what is going on but also that they have the ability to make a difference and put an end to it.

We mostly need to get things to the point when people go into a store and see a Coca-Cola product, they know if they buy this they are supporting violence. We have a long way to go. Most people just love Coke. We need to make the link that these products come from a gruesome cycle of murders, kidnappings and torturing of union leaders and organizers.

For more information visit www.CLRLabor.org.



 

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