Activist and comedian Mark Thomas’s new book Belching Out The Devil chronicles the growing campaign against Coca-Cola’s activities around the world.
This campaign is leading to big problems for the multinational drinks firm. “Coca-Cola’s public relations woes started in Colombia, where campaigning brought to light the deaths of trade unionists at the hands of paramilitaries,” said Mark.
“I have taken part in loads of action as part of the campaign – a stand up show, a documentary, an art exhibition. The book is the final word and the most thorough thing I’ve done as part of this project.
“It allows ordinary people’s voices to come through – the trade unionists, shopkeepers and other people whose lives have been affected by this corporation.
“I wanted readers to hear their voices – not mine. We should be taking on these companies. Democracy – even at the most basic level – is about us controlling our lives.
“We should take on the vision that corporate culture is above and beyond democracy and criticism. We can control and shackle these things. We have to challenge the company and say, ‘We’re not going to stand for this’.
“Addressing the systemic reasons for the power of Coca-Cola and the links between the corporations is beyond the remit of the book.
“But it puts down a challenge. We have to see past the PR of the multinationals and be armed with the facts and information to understand what it is we’re trying to change.
“The book shows how widespread the campaign against Coca-Cola is.
“There are ordinary people fighting back in every country. In the central American country of El Salvador a mayor is fighting Coke through the legal system, Columbian activists and trade unionists have a three-pronged approach of legal work, promoting the boycott and campaigning.
“Strike action and even hunger strikes have taken place in Colombia.
“The campaign in India is particularly inspiring. People are furious at the levels of pollution and environmental destruction and they just want Coke out. They’ve had amazing results. They’ve shut down the Kerala plant in south India.
“The pressure on Coke over pesticides in the water has been incredible and has really laid bare the relationship between the corporation, the US and Indian states, and the political elite.
“What’s fascinating is that it’s a grassroots campaign. The struggle was led by Dalits – people in the lowest positions in the hierachical caste system – and it is often women who are in the lead.
“They had a very good result in Balia – the plant was shut down.
“Many people who couldn’t read and write became spokespeople for the campaign. They became very educated about the company.
“There is now a whole layer of people who have become politically active through this struggle.
“Workers in Britain and the US also have a role to play.
“Coke’s ability to divide and rule is strong. In England bottling plants negotiate wage rises plant by plant.
“Strikes happened last year, but they weren’t coordinated.
“Unions and workers need to organise on a national basis. In Ireland Coke shut down a plant in the east coast that had good union membership and moved it to the west coast where there is no union.
“In the US there is a strategy to de-unionise plants. Unions in this country can and should question the company.
“If the company was caught putting workers into water treatment plants with no health and safety equipment or protection in Britain, all hell would break loose.”
I ask Mark how he thinks the economic crisis will affect wider resistance in Britain.
“In the long term it will give rise to more resistance,” Mark answered. “But in the short term, maybe not.
“The effects haven’t really hit ordinary folk yet. It’s always fun to see bankers suffer but when it hits ordinary people the effects are much more complex.
“The far right has started to make footholds – gains by the British National Party (BNP) in councils came out of the blue for some people.
“To a degree it’s down to Labour’s abandonment of working class people and voters. There are areas that have been damaged by the closure of industry under the Tories, but Labour has never done anything to address it. It doesn’t care about those issues.
“Labour’s thing was to go for the centre ground, the lower middle class, people doing well for themselves. Labour targeted those people and shaped their policies around winning those votes.
“There has been an abandonment of the working class in this country.
The people at the bottom of the pile haven’t moved anywhere and no one gives a fuck. None of the mainstream political parties care about these people. The only people who say they do are the BNP.
“What happens as a result of the economic collapse is very hard to predict. There may be more regulation on the City. There might be a movement of resistance against unfettered capitalism or a more right wing response.”
So what should people do next?
Mark replied, “I say to people who want to get more involved in fighting back – do your homework. Be logical and work out what will work.
“Organise, print flyers and find people to talk to. Get out there, do stalls and connect with other groups.
“The way things change is people getting up and doing stuff. Parliament isn’t a way to do things. Some positive things can come out of it, like the minimum wage for example.
“But change starts outside parliament – in movements like Chartism in the 19th century – and parliament represents the end of a process. The most important thing is that people realise they have the power to change things.
“If we can just get to the point where we realise what is happening under capitalism, what our governments are going with industries which form the power blocks of the world then we’re getting somewhere.
“This is a hard fight, but we’re getting there.”
Belching Out The Devil is available now from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £11.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com