Socialist Worker

Coke takes life

Coca-Cola is hailed as a 'success story' for global capitalism by governments and the media. But behind its carefree image, Coca-Cola is a brutal multinational that terrorises workers

Issue No. 1860

ON 5 December 1996 paramilitaries gunned down a trade union negotiator, Isidro Segundo Gil, at the Bebidas y Alimentos bottling plant in Carepa in Colombia. They later kidnapped another union leader at the plant, who managed to escape. The right wing thugs then burned down the union offices and set about terrorising the remaining workers into leaving the union. Behind this murder lay one of the world's most famous and profitable companies. Bebidas y Alimentos is a Coca-Cola bottling plant.

The workers' union had been demanding a 35 percent pay rise to bring the workers onto a wage of $400 a month with better job security and benefits. The murder was devastating. 'All the workers had to quit the union to save their own lives, and the union was completely destroyed,' said one worker, Edgar Paez. 'For two months the paramilitaries just camped outside the plant gate. 'Coca-Cola never complained to the authorities.'

The workers tried unsuccessfully for four years to get the people responsible brought to justice. But now a US court has ruled that two Coca-Cola bottling companies in Colombia must stand trial over allegations they hired right wing paramilitaries to kill union leaders.

Coca-Cola says the two bottling firms, Bebidas y Alimentos and Panamerican Beverages (Panamco) are independent companies. Yet Coca-Cola has a 60-year history with Panamco, which it part owns. 'Everyone knows that Coca-Cola works with the paramilitaries,' said one high-ranking official in the food and beverage workers' union in Colombia, Sinaltrainal.

The deaths in 1996 were not the first in Coca-Cola's bottling plants in Colombia. In 1994 two other union activists were also murdered in Carepa. In 1989 and 2001 two union leaders were killed in two other plants.

As Terry Collingsworth, a Colombian rights campaigner, says, 'The question is, why is Coca-Cola allowing this to happen, and how many other acts of murder and torture are required to get Coca-Cola to intervene?'

And it's not only in Colombia. In Guatemala in the 1970s death squads were sent in to torture and kill union activists among Coca-Cola workers. Israel Marquez, a cooler repairman and union representative, managed to survive the three attempts on his life. 'In Guatemala, murder is called 'Coca-Cola',' he said.

It took protests in the early 1980s to force Coca-Cola to end its bottling agreement with one company in Guatemala which had used right wing death squads to murder union leaders. Protesters in South Africa targeted Coca-Cola last year with the slogan 'Coca-Cola - We let workers die' because the company was refusing to fund AIDS and HIV drug treatment for its workers.

Now campaigners are targeting Coca-Cola with an international boycott beginning next Tuesday, 22 July. The action has been called by the food and beverage workers' union in Colombia, Sinaltrainal.

The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre also backed the international day of action against Coca-Cola.

A company which pioneered child labour

COCA-COLA began as a 'medicinal' drink with a potent mix of cocaine and caffeine in the US in the late 1880s. Its rise from that to the biggest soft drinks company in the world charts the rise of US capitalism. Coca-Cola started out in Atlanta in the US state of Georgia, the last state to pass laws against the use of child labour.

Asa Chandler, Coca-Cola's first boss, defended young children slaving away in factories. He said, 'Child labour is calculated to bring the highest measure of success to any country on the face of the earth.' The younger a boy began work, 'the more beautiful, the more useful does his life get to be'. Coca-Cola didn't just exploit young workers.

In 1969 some 6,000 migrant workers were employed in groves run by Coca-Cola's Minute Maid company. These men, women and children lived in barracks without bathrooms, on minimal pay.

A Coca-Cola franchise in South Africa in the 1970s during the apartheid era employed black prisoners on work release. The firm paid them just 25 cents a day. Coca-Cola has relied on the support of the US state to help build its empire. When the US sent troops to fight in the Second World War Coca-Cola ensured its representatives went along too to expand its market.

Coke salesmen became 'technical observers' in the US army with military ranks and uniforms. Japanese and German prisoners of war were assigned to work in Coca-Cola plants. At the same time this 'patriotic' company built its business in Nazi Germany. The Nazi swastika hung side by side with the Coca-Cola logo. In the late 1930s Coca-Cola's trucks accompanied young Nazis goose-stepping at Hitler Youth rallies.

In April 1939 Coca-Cola's boss in Germany, Max Keith, celebrated the business's tenth anniversary in the country. He ordered a mass Sieg Heil for Hitler 'to commemorate our deepest admiration and gratitude for our FŸhrer'. Coca-Cola has been happy to work with repressive regimes around the globe if it thought it meant the profits would keep flowing.

The United Fruit Company, Coca-Cola's bottler in Guatemala, helped the military overthrow the democratic government in 1954. The company has also helped US presidents friendly to its interests get into government, including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton. It gave $1 million to Bush's presidential campaign in 2000.

Coca-Cola uses its powerful position to get into US schools to target the youth market. In 1998 it offered a $500 prize for the high school in Georgia that could come up with the best marketing plan for Coca-Cola. One school held a 'Coke In Education Day' including students dressed in red and white to spell out COKE with their bodies.

A student who wore a Pepsi T-shirt was immediately suspended.

$3.05 billion is the profit that Coca-Cola made last year
$350 is the average monthly wage by a Coca-Cola worker in Colombia
EIGHT Coca-Cola workers have been murdered in Colombia since 1996

What you can do

International day of action against Coca-Cola Tuesday 22 July Demonstrate 6pm, Piccadilly Circus, central London. Called by Colombia Solidarity Campaign. Colombian Coca-Cola workers will be touring Britain from 2 November, in the run-up to the European Social Forum.

'The Coca-Cola case shows that the real face of the multinationals and the government is a policy of blood. The Colombian government does nothing to protect people from these multinationals.'
Luis Hernandez president Sintraemcali union, Colombia

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Article information

Sat 19 Jul 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1860
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