Thursday, January 25, 2007

Does our beloved Coca-Cola, the “classic” “real thing” that always refreshes and is nearly ubiquitous in our land, hire paramilitary death squads in Latin America to assassinate bottler workers trying to unionize their plants?

There is ample documentation pointing the blame squarely on the supposed death merchants at Coke, as well as case after case of all-too-convenient murders which are alleged to be occurring up to the present day. If such a case proves true, the bare moral minimum would be to end all business and sever its ties. This could be prompted by a student-led boycott of Coca-Cola and its subsidiary brands, which includes Minute Maid, PowerAde and others.

The incidents are not widely reported in the mainstream — with the apparent exceptions of two respective reports in the New York Times from 2001 and 2003, alleging that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (known as the AUC) has, and continues, to slaughter unionists under the orders of bottling firms like the Panamco Industrial de Gaseosas, “the major Coke bottler in Colombia.” The Times also explains that the legal basis for filing lawsuits against these actions “interfere[s] with foreign policy and open[s] multinational companies to frivolous or irrelevant grievances,” according to Bush administration officials cited.

By that standard, the taking of human lives is either immaterial or — probably worse — completely necessary for the interests of corporate dominion, anywhere it looks to operate with impunity and with total sanction. Yet there are other, more substantiating accounts that bear mentioning. In the Nation (“The Case Against Coca-Cola,” 1 May 2006), free-lancer Michael Blanding quotes Javier Correa, the president of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de Alimentos, which is known as Sinaltrainal, as saying that Coca-Cola policy is “to not only eliminate the union but to destroy its workers,” and stated that Sinaltrainal “membership has fallen from about 1,400 to less than 400” from 1996 to 2006.

Ed Potter, the labor-relations director at Coke, put up a seemingly good front that Blanding demolished as “at best irrelevant and at worst misleading.” It may be unfair, however, to blame Potter on that basis since he’s simply doing his job. It might also be worth noting that the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations, thankfully abbreviated as the IUF, “condemned the anti-Coke movement” as “‘based on unsubstantiated allegations and empty political slogans,’” according to the National Review. On the other hand, the allegations seem far from unsubstantiated.

Yet in September 2006, the District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled that the Alien Tort Claims Act, under which Sinaltrainal sued the Coke bottlers for human rights violations, did not give the court enough “subject matter jurisdiction” to decide whether the allegations were “in violation of the law of nations,” according to the docket signed off by José Martinez, the presiding judge. The court also ruled that “there is a risk that vague … allegations will allow individuals … to engage in unwarranted ‘fishing expeditions’ against corporate entities and to abuse the judicial process in order to pursue political agendas.” All outstanding charges against the Coca-Cola bottling companies were thrown out.

For the record, here are some of the names of the slain workers, in fact murders for which Coca-Cola appears to bear responsibility — and, by extension, ourselves as consumers — according to what has so far been recorded: Oscar Darío Soto, José Eleazar Manco, Luis Enrique Gómez, Isídro Segundo Gil, and dozens of others. More than a few other workers, including Luis Adolfo Cardona, Juan Carlos Gavis, Jorgé Humberto Leal and José Domingo Flores, were tortured by security forces — or captured, intimidated, brutally handled and lucky to escape alive.

Within all of this, boycotts are not guaranteed to be successful; about that no one should have any illusions. A vibrant, sustained campaign against Coca-Cola could have an important educational effect as well as shed more light on what continue to be largely hidden abuses, specifically those acts of brutality against the very lowest links of a long chain that reaches right up to cafeterias and hallways in college campuses throughout the nation. There looks to be both promise and peril in any kind of undertaking to stop man’s inhumanity to man. And it ought to be a common-sense position that no organization should have a legitimate reason to do business with a criminal outfit, even if by proxy.

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