The multiple murders of union workers in Columbia surprised the general public. What was worse is it was coming from one of the largest beverage corporations in the world. In response, there is a fight to suspend Coca-Cola products at Dawson.
by Despina Doukas
On a hot summer’s day, the familiar red logo, loud fizz at the opening of a bottle, the trickling of the sweet pop bubbles and refreshing taste of a bottle of Coca Cola would appeal to almost every North American consumer.
Coca-Cola has been quenching the world’s thirst since 1886, and has gained consumers’ trust ever since with its squeaky-clean slogans like “The national temperance beverage,” “Pure as Sunlight” and its use of cute little polar bear mascots every Christmas season.
However, the Coca-Cola Company has been recently accused of some not so innocent acts – the murder of 12 union leaders in Coca-Cola’s Colombian bottling factories, as well as the kidnapping, and torture of hundreds of other Coke workers from 1990 to 2002. In response, Ray Rogers, General of The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, wants the youth of the world to do something about it.
According to killercoke.org, in July 2001, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labour Rights Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of The National Union of Food Industry Workers (SINALTRAINAL), several of its members and the estate of Isidro Gil, one of its murdered officers. The lawsuit and campaign aim to force Coca-Cola to prevent further bloodshed and to provide safe working conditions.
According to Business Weekly, what has occurred in Colombia over the past decade is a matter of debate. Union leaders from SINALTRAINAL, on whose behalf the 2001 Miami lawsuit was filed, claim that several years of violence and killings of Coke workers intensified on Dec. 5, 1996, when a right-wing paramilitary squad showed up at the gate of the Coke bottling plant owned by Bebidas y Alimentos, in Carepa, a small town in north-western Colombia’s banana-growing region. The paramilitaries shot and killed Isidro Segundo Gil, the gatekeeper and a member of the union’s executive board. An hour later, they allegedly kidnapped another union leader at his home and torched the union’s offices.
Leaders from SINALTRAINAL claim that the following day the paramilitaries returned to the plant, called workers together, and gave them an ultimatum: to sign a statement resigning from the union — or suffer the consequences. Many union members resigned on the spot with 27 quitting their jobs and fleeing to other cities, fearing they would be killed if they stayed. Allegedly, Luis Hernán Manco, who was president of the union at the time, was called to a local tavern by the plant manager, where several paramilitaries warned him and other union leaders to leave town. The union stated that Coke and its bottler were aware of and responsible for these acts; however, both companies denied the claim.
An alleged 1996 public statement by Ariosto Milan Mosquera, the plant manager at Carepa, stated that “he had given an order to the paramilitaries to carry out the task of destroying the union,” however, the plant’s owner, Richard Kirby denies his managers gave any such orders. SINALTRAINAL leaders say that over the intervening nine years, in addition to the eight who died, 48 others have been forced into hiding, and 65 have received death threats.
According to killercoke.org, Union leaders insist Coke could have halted the violence by immediately — and publicly — condemning the paramilitaries.
“If the company had condemned the first death, there probably wouldn’t have been any more,” said Edgar Paez, director of international relations for SINALTRAINAL to Business Weekly.
A Coca-Cola representative disagreed. “Our bottlers have been quite open in condemning the violence,” he told Business Weekly, pointing to local newspaper ads they published that denounced the violence.
Business Weekly also reported that Paez claimed the Coca-Cola bottler financially benefited from the paramilitaries’ actions, since they broke the union and allowed the bottler to replace many of its full-time employees with much cheaper part-time and temporary workers. Plant owner Kirby denies that charge, claiming that he suffered, too, since his wife’s sister was kidnapped by the paramilitaries, who also burned four of his trucks and tried to convince Kirby to sell his plant to them on the cheap, which he declined to do. “Nobody tells the paramilitaries what to do. They tell you,” he explained to Business Weekly.
Coke officials continue to argue that union activists who have distorted the facts about Colombia have unfairly targeted the company. According to Business Weekly, Coke officials say only one of the eight workers was killed on the premises of the Coke bottling plant owned by Bebidas y Alimentos de Urabá. They also argued that the other deaths, which all occurred off-premises, were consequences of Colombia’s four-decades-long civil war among leftist guerrillas, government forces, and paramilitaries, which has resulted in at least 35,000 deaths, including 2,500 trade unionists, since the mid-1980s alone.
Although the issue with the civil war, and the deaths of unionists in Colombia is highly complex and controversial, Ray Rogers continues to support his crusade against Coca- Cola. Rogers also supports the idea that Coca -Cola CEO’s should take responsibility for what is occurring in Colombia. Rogers encourages the youth, whom he claims are the biggest consumers of Coca-Cola products, to support his cause.
Many college and university campuses across North America are directly affiliated with Coca-Cola, which means, they cannot sell products by competing companies of Coca-Cola on campus grounds. Rogers is touring campuses across North America, screening The Coca- Cola Case, which documents labour rights lawyers Daniel Kovalik, Terry Collingworth and Ray Rogers, Director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, as they attempt to hold the giant U.S. multinational beverage company accountable in a legal and human rights battle.
He encourages students to boycott all Coca-Cola products (which includes Dasani Water, Coke, Nestle, Minute Maid and Sprite), and to protest to get these products off campuses. His hope is that the Coca- Cola company will feel the pressure and take responsibility for the deaths occurring in Colombia.
Canadian universities that actively support the campaign to stop Killer Coke include University of Waterloo, University of British Columbia, Queens University and several more.
According to Donna Varrica, of Public Relations at Dawson College, our CEGEP has not been directly affiliated with Coca-Cola since 2006.
“Between 2001 and 2006, we were directly affiliated with Coca Cola, which means only coke products could be sold on our campus. In exchange, Dawson received one million dollars over the span of those five years, money that could only be used to fund student services such as scholarships, financial aid, and extracurricular activities such as the vernissage,” Varrica said.
Varrica explained that it was at that time in the corporate world, to create contracts with public places. It then went out of favour for the big corporations, which prompted Dawson’s affiliation with Coca-Cola to end in 2006.
“We’ve also always had the problem of competing with Alexis Nihon, so the contract Coca-Cola had with Dawson may have not been favourable to them,” Varrica explained.
“Today, Dawson’s cafeteria and catering needs are served by Chartwells. They are a private company, independent from Dawson, and they decide which company to buy their products from,” Varrica stated. “If Dawson students wanted to express their views against the Coca-Cola company to Chartwells, then Chartwells would have to take it upon themselves to suspend sales of Coca-Cola products from campus.”
Many students agree that suspending sales of Coca-Colaproducts from campus would be a good idea.
“I do think that we as Dawson students should boycott Coca-Cola if they are supporting this violent behaviour in Colombian factories,” said fourth semester Liberal Arts student Sabrina Nicholson. “Even if it doesn’t make a huge impact, or if students end up buying Coca-Cola products off campus, we still cannot support a company that defends murder and violence. In response to the argument that Chartwells will lose money, I think a life is more important than their income, and in the end they can always find new ways to make their money.”
Stephanie Leech-Pepin, a second semester Visual Arts student agrees. “I don’t know the situation very well,” she said, “but if workers are trying to get more rights that they deserve, and Coca-Cola is stopping them from doing so, then I think we should definitely stop selling all Coca-Cola products on campus.”
Despite the controversy surrounding Coca-Cola and workers in Colombian bottling factories, some students are not willing to give up all Coke products in support of the cause.
“Support is a big word,” proclaimed Cynthia Nelson, a fourth semester Cinema, Video & Communications student. “I don’t drink Coke, but I think I would be affected if all Coca-Cola products were taken off campus just because I drink Minute Maid. I don’t know if I would support Dawson not supplying Minute Maid products on campus.”
In the end, many students agree that although the political issues in Colombia are complex and difficult to judge, it comes down to asking ourselves, what is worth more- our refreshment, or human rights?
Fourth semester Liberal Arts student Marianna Mirzoyan offers a fitting answer. “I don’t drink much Coca- Cola, but even if I did, I would think that a human life would worth a lot more than a bottle of Coke.”