Monday, September 12, 2005

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

by Ari Paul
August 31, 2005

Read the entire article at:

Across the US, students are boycotting Coca-Cola because of murders of trade union activists in Colombia. openDemocracy explores the Coca connection

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.

"I think the fact that, independent of any student organisations, there are thousands of people mobilising in Colombia, putting their lives on the line.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ray Rogers, the director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, doesn't buy it.

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 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 case was dismissed, but at the same time the judge said the case could continue against Coke's bottlers in Colombia.

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.

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.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer

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