Coca-Cola Accused of Using Death Squads to Target Union Leaders
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida accuses the Coca-Cola Company, its Colombian subsidiary and business affiliates of using paramilitary death squads to murder, torture, kidnap and threaten union leaders at the multinational soft drink manufacturer’s Colombian bottling plants. The suit was filed on July 20 by the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian union that represents workers at Coca-Cola’s Colombian bottling plants; the estate of a murdered union leader; and five other unionists who worked for Coca-Cola and were threatened, kidnapped or tortured by paramilitaries.
Colombia has long been the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists with almost 4,000 murdered in the past 15 years. Last year saw 128 labor leaders assassinated. Most of the killings have been attributed to right-wing paramilitaries belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), who view union organizers as subversives and, therefore, “legitimate” targets in their dirty war against Colombia’s guerrilla insurgents. Three out of every five trade unionists killed in the world are Colombian. The most recent killing of a union leader at one of Coca-Cola’s Colombian bottling plants was June 21 when Oscar Dario Soto Polo was gunned down.
Needless to say, companies in Colombia benefit from the reduced effectiveness of union organizing that results from the intimidation of workers by paramilitaries. But the complaint filed against Coca-Cola last week claims that the company does more than just benefit from paramilitary violence: it claims the company orchestrates it.
According to Terry Collingsworth of the Washington DC-based International Labor Rights Fund and co-counsel for the plaintiffs, “There is no question that Coke knew about, and benefits from, the systematic repression of trade union rights at its bottling plants in Colombia, and this case will make the company accountable.” The plaintiffs are seeking compensation and an end to the human rights abuses committed against Coca-Cola’s employees and union members.
The suit claims that Coca-Cola controls all aspects of business conducted by its Colombian subsidiary Coca-Cola Colombia, as well as the operations of Panamerican Beverages, its Colombian subsidiary Panamco, and Bebidas y Alimentos. According to the complaint, Panamco and Bebidas y Alimentos exist solely for the purpose of bottling and distributing Coca-Cola products in Colombia. Both are Florida-based companies with ‘bottling agreements’ requiring them to abide by Coca-Cola’s code of conduct regarding their operations and labor relations.
The plaintiffs are claiming U.S. jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-U.S. citizens to file suit against Americans for violations of international law. Regarding the role of the United Steel Workers in the suit, union President Leo Gerard explains, “We are filing this case to show our solidarity with the embattled trade unions of Colombia.” The position taken by the union stands in sharp contrast to AFL-CIO policies during the 1980′s that openly supported President Reagan’s military funding of Central American governments involved in the violent repression of union activities.
Among the suit’s many claims is a 1996 incident in which Ariosto Milan Mosquera, plant manager at Bebidas y Alimentos’ bottling facility in Carepa, Colombia, made public pronouncements that “he had given an order to the paramilitaries to carry out the task of destroying the union.” Union members claim that Mosquera often socialized with paramilitary fighters and even provided them with Coca-Cola products for their fiestas. Shortly after Mosquera’s pronouncement, local members of SINALTRAINAL began receiving threats from the paramilitaries.
On September 27, 1996, SINALTRAINAL sent a letter to the Colombian headquarters of both Bebidas y Alimentos and Coca-Cola Colombia informing them of Mosquera’s threats against the union and requesting that they intervene to prevent further human rights abuses against employees and union leaders.
Two and a half months later, on the morning of December 5, 1996, Bebidas y Alimentos employee and local SINALTRAINAL executive board member Isidro Segundo Gil was killed by paramilitaries inside the Carepa bottling plant. The remaining union board members were also threatened with death if they did not leave town. And then, on December 7, the paramilitaries entered the plant and told employees they had three choices: resign from the union, leave Carepa, or be killed. The suit claims the workers were then led into the manager’s office to sign union resignation forms prepared by the company. The union had been successfully busted.
When asked about his company’s use of paramilitaries to kill and intimidate union members, Bebidas y Alimentos owner Richard Kirby, who is also a defendant in the case, said, “You don’t use them, they use you. Nobody tells the paramilitaries what to do.” He also claims that the facts regarding the murder of Isidro Segundo Gil have been distorted: “One day the paramilitaries showed up at the plant. They shut the plant down, put everyone against the wall, and started shooting. Now its been turned around so that it’s our fault.”
But the targeting of labor leaders was not limited to the Carepa plant. According to the complaint, union officials at several other Coca-Cola bottling plants were also being threatened and harassed. In 1996, at Panamco’s Bucaramanga plant, local members of SINALTRAINAL went on a 120-hour strike to protest the company’s elimination of employee medical insurance.
After the strike ended, the suit claims, “the chief of security for the Bucaramanga plant, Jose Alejo Aponte, told authorities that he found a bomb in the plant.” He then accused five members of the local SINALTRAINAL executive board of planting the bomb. The five union leaders, three of whom are plaintiffs in this case, were then imprisoned for six months based on charges brought by, according to official documents, “COCA COLA EMBOTELLADORA SANTANDER.”
The union leaders were released six months later when, according to the suit, the regional prosecutor “concluded not only that the Plaintiffs had nothing to do with placing a bomb in the plant as charged, but that there in fact was never a bomb in the plant as the company had claimed.”
When asked about abuses committed against union leaders at its Colombian bottling plants, Rafael Fernandez, a spokesman at Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta, denied any wrongdoing regarding human rights violations in Colombia or anywhere else. He also stated, “Coca-Cola has a strict code of conduct that all its subsidiaries and businesses that work with Coca-Cola products have to adhere to.” But according to Collingsworth, “Their ‘code of conduct’ shows that they are legally responsible. These companies come up with these codes and then don’t enforce them.”
The suit also claims that local management at Panamco’s Barrancabermeja plant “have openly sided with the paramilitaries in the civil war which is intensely manifested in Barrancabermeja.” It goes on to claim that Panamco Colombia has publicly accused SINALTRAINAL members of being guerrillas. Given the volatile situation in Barrancabermeja, home to the most intense urban warfare in Colombia, such an accusation is tantamount to a death sentence.
The president of the local SINALTRAINAL union in Barrancabermeja, Juan Carlos Galvis, says he received phone calls from paramilitaries threatening him with death if he didn’t stop his union work and quit his job at Coca-Cola. The suit claims that paramilitary threats also appeared on the walls inside the plant, including one in June 2000 that stated, “Get Out Galvis From Coca-Cola, Signed AUC.”
According to Fernandez, “Coca-Cola Colombia has very special security measures for all its employees and the employees of its bottling plants in Colombia.” But the company’s failure to respond to the SINALTRAINAL letter, written more than two months before the murder of Isidro Segundo Gil, and the ongoing intimidation and harassment of labor leaders raises serious questions regarding Coca-Cola’s commitment to protecting its workers, especially those involved in union activities.
This article originally appeared in Colombia Report, an online journal that was published by the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA).