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Colombian Union Activist Speaks Against Coca-Cola

by Kris Penniston |
December 31, 2004
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This is a photo of Tom Burke at Washington D.C.
Tom Burke, a leader of the Colombia Action Network, speaking in Washington D.C. at the Oct. 20 protest against the occupation of Iraq. In addition to condemning the war on Iraq, Burke called for a boycott of Coke for its complicity in the murder of Colombian trade unionists. (Fight Back! News/Kim Defranco)
This is a photo of a march against Killer Coke in Flagstaff, Arizona.
March against Killer Coke in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Madison, WI - “I watched as they put a bullet into his head,” said Luis Adolfo Cardona, a former worker at a Colombian Coca-Cola bottling plant. He was speaking of Isidro Segundo Gil, a lead union negotiator at the plant. “I knew I would be next,” Cardona continued. Later that day, Dec. 5, 1996, Cardona was kidnapped and was likely headed for the same fate as his friend until he escaped.

“Fear sometimes paralyzes people,” Cardona said, “but it can also make you react.” Cardona described to an audience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison how he ran “in zigzags” to avoid being shot by paramilitary gunmen. After he got away, he rounded up his wife and daughter and they went to live in Bogota, the nation’s capital. “My daughter was grabbing my leg, crying, saying ‘I don’t want to leave my house,’” Cardona said. While living in Bogota for a few years and working for his union, SINALTRAINAL (the National Union of Food Industry Workers), Cardona continued to receive threats, which forced him to flee to the U.S. under the protection of the AFL-CIO. Cardona now resides with his family in Chicago and is seeking permanent asylum.

To kick off its ‘Boycott Coke’ campaign, the newly formed Colombia Action Committee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted Cardona on Oct. 16, the National Student Day of Action against Coca-Cola. A captivated audience of students and activists heard about Colombian paramilitary atrocities against workers in Colombia - atrocities supported and condoned by U.S. corporations such as Coca-Cola. While in Madison, Cardona also met with leaders of an area church group interested in promoting social justice and workers’ rights. Cardona’s visit to the Madison area was part of a tour sponsored by the Colombia Action Network.

Cardona, who worked for twelve and a half years at the Carepa Coca-Cola plant and played soccer for its corporate team, said he didn’t set out to be a union activist, but became increasingly concerned about discrimination at his workplace. Cordona said, as soon as the union was founded, “we were immediately met with phone threats and letters,” sometimes aimed not just at the activists but also their families.

“In Colombia,” Cardona said, “you have three options. You stay silent, you die, or you get out of the country.” Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world in which to organize a union. On average, three trade unionists are killed each week, Cardona said. According to news reports and human rights organizations, nearly 4,000 Colombian union activists have been killed since the mid-1980s. Right-wing paramilitary groups, often working in collaboration with the Colombian military, have perpetrated much of the killing - with the express mission to destroy the labor movement.

According to Cardona, Coca-Cola’s management at the Carepa bottling plant allowed members of these death squads to enter the plant gates and murder his friend. “The men who shot Gil had been inside the plant before,” Cardona said, and noted they were the same men who grabbed him later that day. He described how local Coca-Cola managers were often seen in public consorting with known death squad members. The union office of SINALTRAINAL was looted and burned down by paramilitaries after Gil was murdered. Union members were forced to resign from the union under threats of violence. The union resignation cards “went directly to paramilitary personnel,” Cardona noted.

With the help of United Steelworkers of America lawyers, SINALTRAINAL has filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola. Among the lawsuit’s charges are that Richard Kirby, the U.S. owner of the Carepa plant, talked with members of the paramilitary prior to Gil’s murder and made public comments about wiping out the union. James McDonald, Kirby’s attorney, was quoted in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in June of 2002 as saying, “Everyone recognizes the lawlessness in some parts of Colombia. Does that mean that Coke et al. are responsible for the violence perpetrated? I think that’s a stretch.” McDonald went on to say, “The bottom line is, we deny these allegations.” Nine other Coca-Cola workers in Colombia besides Gil have been murdered in recent years, yet Coca-Cola management continues to deny any culpability.

When asked why U.S. workers and students should be concerned about Colombian workers, Cardona pointed out that Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid. Approximately $2.5 billion in U.S. tax dollars has been pledged to Colombia over the last three years through Plan Colombia, which Cardona referred to as ‘Plan Washington.’ “Think about who is benefiting,” he said. While purportedly to stop the drug trade, “most of the money for Plan Colombia stays in the U.S.,” he said, funding the manufacture of helicopters, weapons and fumigation chemicals, all of which are being used against Colombian peasants. Cardona described the grisly effects of mass fumigation, which include skin rashes and burns, water contamination and birth defects in babies whose mothers drank polluted water. Cardona pointed out that American workers aren’t seeing better wages or increased job security as a result of these expenditures, yet corporate profits continue to rise.

Speaking of profits, in 2002, Coca-Cola made nearly $4 billion. Douglas Daft, Coca-Cola CEO, received $105 million in compensation. Meanwhile, the new Coca-Cola workers at the Carepa bottling plant, hired after the union there was destroyed, earn $130 per month, three times less than those earned by former union employees. SINALTRAINAL called for an international boycott of Coca-Cola and its products on July 22, 2003, Cardona said, and American workers and students are beginning to act. “Support the boycott, and support the right of Colombian workers to organize,” Cardona said.

The list of Coca-Cola products is long and includes Coca-Cola, Sprite, Fanta, Swerve dairy drink, Minute Maid, Dasani water, Nestea, and Powerade. Colombia Action Committee organizers at UW-Madison kept the heat on as they embarked on a successful ‘500 by the 5th’ campaign, the goal of which was to obtain 500-plus signed letters to Coca-Cola board members by December 5, a National Day of Action called by the Colombia Action Network to commemorate the murder of Isidro Gil. Organizers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have already been successful at getting a university minority scholarship program to stop ordering Coca-Cola products at its events. Through the spring semester, the group will continue to build the movement against Coca-Cola, against corporate crimes and for workers’ rights in Colombia, by taking the issue to other organizations and activists on campus and in the community.

For more information on the UW-Madison boycott Coke campaign, email Kris Penniston or Sara Augustine.

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