In Colombia, it’s killer Coke the union must fight

For decades a corporation currently ranking 32nd in the world for market value and accumulating $7.1 billion in profits in a recent year has abused and even killed workers who want better lives. Coca Cola, the Goliath in this Colombian story, has had to contend with the Sinaltranail food and beverage workers’ union that, as David, defends the Coca Cola workers.

On June 25, 2015 thugs killed retired Coca Cola worker Wilmer Enrique Giraldo. Wilmer had been injured at work, was forced from his job, received death threats, and fled in fear to Medellin.  Luis Enrique Girado Arango, his father, also worked for Coca Cola and also belonged to Sinaltrainal. Paramilitaries assassinated Luis Enrique Girado in 1994.

The 14 murders of Sinaltranail’s Coca Cola workers since 1990 represent a tiny fraction of the 2,800 murders of Colombian unionists occurring between 1984 and 2011. In addition, during those years, tens of thousands of other social movement activists and protesters have met violent deaths. 

The 105 Colombian unionists killed between 2011 and the present are of special significance.  During that time the Labor Action Plan of the U. S. – Colombian Free Trade Agreement has been in force. The Plan was a U. S. – inspired effort allegedly intended to stop violence against unionists. 

Sinaltranail defends employees of Nestle Corporation, Nutresa, and other Colombian companies in addition to Coca Cola. But the fight against huge and famous Coca Cola is special, inasmuch as that corporation exemplifies transnational corporations which receive support and protection from Colombia’s neo-liberal government. 

This is a big-league contest.  Coca Cola in Colombia teams with the giant Mexican food and beverage distributer FEMSA. Coca Cola claimed almost 50 million consumers there in 2013, 5,000 employees, and “413,200 points of sale.”  In fact, “Colombia made up 47.1 million (15 percent) of Coca-Cola s 313.7 million drinkers of the soft drink in Latin America and the Philippines.”

Unfortunately from the union’s point of view, Coca Cola farms out most of its workers to subcontracted “facade companies.” 

Sinaltranail has resisted the company’s firing of new recruits and its refusal to relocate workers who’ve received threats of violence. The union defends workers from intimidation at the hands of private security firms and from real danger posed by militarized police attacks against striking workers, in one instance with tanks.

Over the years Coca Cola has used paramilitary forces as its ultimate enforcer, not only as murderer, but once by entering a bottling plant to force workers out of the union.  Sinaltrainal has advocated for the environment, notably in early 2015 when it protested Coca Cola’s having diverted almost 70 percent of Tocancipá’s underground water supplies to its plant there.  

Beginning on April 13, 2015, five Sinaltrainal Coca Cola workers carried out a hunger strike for 10 days in Bogota’s Plaza Bolivar. Acting for Coca Cola workers nationwide, they were protesting low wages, Coca Cola’s sub-contracting for workers, its firing of 1,500 workers at a closed – down bottling plant, and abuse of water resources.

The hunger strike ended with an agreement on establishing a review board to monitor water use and deal with environmental abuses. News reports indicated that remaining issues, like wages and sub-contracting, would be discussed later.

On May 22, 2015, Coca Cola service workers belonging to Sinaltranail chained themselves to Coca Cola factory entry ways in Cúcuta, Bucaramanga, Barrancabermeja, Cali, Medellín, and Barranquilla. They were reiterating demands made a month earlier. 

In this fight against long odds, Sinaltranail has gained international solidarity. The United Steelworkers and the International Labor Rights Forum filed lawsuits in the United States in 2001 and 2006. The charge, which did not prevail, was that Coca Cola in Colombia “contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured and unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders.” 

In a 2012 letter to President Obama, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka expressed his “profound shock” at the murder of a Coca Cola worker and Sinaltranail leader in Barranquilla. Alleging that Coca Cola is “complicit in violence against union leaders in Latin America, particularly Colombia and Guatemala,” the American Federation of Teachers in late 2014 resolved to ban Coca Cola products in schools.

Since 2004, dozens of union locals and state and central labor councils have issued similar statements. The American Postal Workers Union, Communications Workers of America, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and Service Employees International Union have done likewise. 

Yet the struggle continues and the stakes are high. Or in the words of Sinaltranail leader Juan Carlos Galvis:  “If we lose this fight against Coke, first we will lose our union, next we will lose our jobs, and then we will all lose our lives!”

Photo: Stop Killer Coke! Facebook page


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.