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Colombian Trade Unionists on Hunger Strike at Coca-Cola Plants

by staff |
March 16, 2004
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On Monday, March 15, Coca-Cola union workers in Colombia began a hunger strike in front of the Coke bottling plants in Barrancabermeja, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, Cartagena, Cúcuta, Medellín and Valledupar. Juan Carlos Galvis, vice-president of the union in Barrancabermeja, has said, "If we lose the fight against Coca-Cola, we will first lose our union, next our jobs and then our lives." William Mendoza, president of the union in Barrancabermeja, said, "This is the final battle and we're giving it all we've got. We need all supporters of human and labor rights in the U.S. to do the same!"

Coca-Cola has been the subject of an international boycott since July 22, 2002. The Colombian Action Network (CAN) has been leading the boycott in the United States. They have been organizing the boycott in communities and on college campuses across the country. Meredith Aby, of the Colombia Action Network, explained, "We called for an international boycott against Killer Coke for their hiring of paramilitary death squads to murder, threaten and kidnap union leaders. Nine union leaders at Coca-Cola have been killed in Colombia. It is the most dangerous place to be a union leader in the world."

Aby continued, "On average, three trade unionists are killed every week in Colombia! The Colombia Action Network stands in solidarity with the Colombian labor movement in their fight for the right to organize. We criticize the U.S. government for the $3 billion in military aid they have given to the Colombian government since 2000. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented that these funds have gone directly to support the right-wing paramilitary death squads, which are the same organizations attacking the workers at Coca-Cola's plants in Colombia."

On Sept. 9, 2003, Coca-Cola FEMSA (Coke's largest bottler in Latin America) closed the production lines at 11 of their 16 bottling plants in Colombia. The Coca-Cola Company shares several board members with Coca-Cola FEMSA and owns 46.4% of its voting stock. Since then, Coca-Cola FEMSA has pressured more than 500 workers into 'voluntarily resigning' from their contracts in exchange for a lump-sum payment. Most of the union leaders refused to resign and the company is escalating the pressure against them. On Feb. 25, the Colombian Ministry of Social Protection (Labor) authorized Coca-Cola FEMSA's plans to dismiss 91 workers - 70% of whom are union leaders. This would essentially eliminate the union.

The union is calling for Coca-Cola FEMSA to relocate those workers to other positions within those plants or to transfer them to other plants. This is what the company is required to do, according to Articles 18 and 91 of the current collective bargaining agreements. In January, a Colombian judge also ordered the company to do this for the workers at the plants in Barrancabermeja and Cúcuta.

In a communiqué from the Coca-Cola workers' union, SINALTRAINAL, President Luis Javier Correa Suarez said, "We're doing this (hunger strike) to denounce, nationally and internationally, that nine Coca-Cola workers have been killed and 67 have been threatened with death; and that we've been the victims of attempted murder, kidnappings, forced displacement, and the burning of one of our union offices by the paramilitaries. This has forced many workers to resign from the union. We're also denouncing the unjust termination of employment contracts, the use of illegal confinement to force workers to resign, the subcontracting of more than 88% of the workers and the impact this has had on living conditions and the attempt by Coca-Cola to eliminate rights in the negotiations of collective bargaining agreements as has been occurring since March 1 of this year."

"We, the workers affected by the closure of the production lines, are continuing to resist. But, given the grave aggression that we're continuing to suffer, there's no other recourse but to declare a hunger strike and demand that Coca-Cola respect the law, and fulfill the legal resolution passed by the judge in January 2004 to protect the right to work and require Coca-Cola to relocate the workers in other positions. We're also demanding the fulfillment of the collective bargaining agreement by relocating the workers in other positions, an end to the repression, and respect for our human rights."

Tom Burke, of the Colombia Action Network, urges supporters of the right to organize to contact Coca-Cola immediately. "This is an emergency! We need action! This may be the final show down between the Colombian workers' union, SINALTRAINAL, and Coca-Cola. This is an important time for an overwhelming response from the grassroots. People who are concerned about the rights of Colombian trade unionists must call Coca-Cola to demand that they recognize the union and the rights of workers!"

To contact Coca-Cola and send a message of solidarity with the unionists go to www.colombiaactionnetwork.org