GUATEMALA'S LABOR MOVEMENT Coke Victory Spurs Recovery

September 25, 2007

The Guatemalan labor movement is
showing signs of recovery after the in-
tense repression of the last half dozen
years. Being a union officer is still a
high-risk job. The kidnappings and
murders continue unabated. Yet there
is more activity than there was a year
ago. "The level of organization
comes in waves," says Frank La Rue,
an exiled Guatemalan labor lawyer
living in Washington. "After a while
people accommodate to a certain level
of repression. They get out of the ter-
ror crisis and adapt to new ways of or-
Jane Slaughter, staffwriter on Labor
Notes, visited Guatemala in July.
Inside the Guatemala City Coca-
Cola bottling plant, the atmosphere
is quiet. No Coke bottles move down
the conveyors, the red and white
trucks that carry the worldwide sym-
bol of U.S. soft-drink imperialism
are parked. Nor do there seem to be
tense preparations against a possible
police take-over of the worker-oc-
cupied factory. Members of the bot-
tler workers' union, STEGAC, are
waiting, waiting for a new owner to
be found so that their union can re-
sume its normal functioning under
Guatemalan-style labor relations.
When the workers at Embotellad-
"The first three months of the occupation were tense."
ora Guatemalteca S.A. took over their
plant from the departing franchise
owners on the night of February 17,
they brought with them the bloody
memory of 1978-80, when they lost
eight members to the death squads.
The international attention focused on
their struggle for union rights in 1980
had forced the Atlanta-based Coca-
Cola Co. to throw out the previous
manager, an American named John
Trotter, and install new ones. Now
these new managers, Anthony Zash
and Roberto Mendez, in a night-time
meeting with the leaders of the
STEGAC union, were claiming that
the business was bankrupt and that
they were about to shut down.
The first three months of the occu-
pation were tense. Plainclothes police
patrolled outside, and the Army set up
roadblocks, stopping passing cars and
occasionally firing shots. The Minis-
ter of the Interior called the union's
position "practically one of rebel-
lion." Overall, however, the govern-
ment has attempted to act as mediator.
The occupation came four months be-
fore elections designed to prove to the
world-in particular the U.S. Con-
gress-that Guatemala is on the road
to democracy.
At first Coke officials refused to
take any responsibility for the plant,
travelling to Europe to explain to
STEGAC's supporters that the plant
was not viable. One hundred days
later, on May 27, Coke pledged to
find new franchise owners, and to rec-
ognize the union and the current col-
lective bargaining agreement. The
company agreed to pay each worker a
lump sum amounting to two and half
months' pay as reimbursement for the
work they had done in maintaining the
plant, and set up a $12,000 trust fund
for the survivors of those killed in
Saving the Union, Not Just Jobs
The agreement legitimized the
union's occupation of the plant, and
the Army's roadblocks are gone. Now
the workers staff the plant on 24-hour
shifts, except for the union officers,
who are inside most of the time. The
literacy classes, labor education and
the twice-weekly union meetings con-
tinue while the union waits for Coke
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1984 15The plant cafeteria. "Workers staff the plant on 24-hour shifts."
to hold up its end of the bargain.
While workers view the agreement
as a victory, it is also a step backward
in one important respect. In 1980,
Coke agreed to oversee the manage-
ment of the plant. That agreement was
made between the parent company
and the International Union of Food
and Allied Workers Associations
(IUF). It was the first agreement be-
tween a transnational corporation and
an international union secretariat. The
May 27 agreement was signed only by
STEGAC and Coke's Central Ameri-
can subsidiary. This time Coke re-
fused "in principle" to deal with the
IUF, also refusing to take direct con-
trol of the plant, as the unions
Throughout the struggle STEGAC
has made the union's survival its
foremost goal. At one point the Minis-
ter of Labor suggested that the union
borrow money and set up the plant as
a workers' cooperative. Rodolfo Ro-
bles, STEGAC's secretary general,
says that the union rejected this idea
out of hand. "We don't believe work-
ers should fight only for their own fac-
tory," he explains. Forming a
cooperative would have taken the
Coke workers out of the union move-
Coke pressured the workers to take
the money set aside as severance pay.
Most refused to do so, although it
meant going without any income for
over four months. Accepting sever-
ance pay (the pasivo laboral) would
have meant taking the chance of not
being rehired. STEGAC feared the
company would hire new, non-union
workers at lower wages. (Since the
signing, the workers have been free to
take the severance pay, since their
employment with the new owners is
One reason the workers boldly oc-
cupied the plant was that they were
unlikely to find jobs elsewhere if it
folded. Any Coke worker, union offi-
cial or not, would be blackballed by
CACIF, the employers' organization.
Although STEGAC appears to have
wrung a major concession from Coca-
Cola, the waiting game is not over.
Some workers have grown impatient
that Coke has not produced the fabled
new owners. The union's numbers
have shrunk from about 560 to 400.
"Determined to Do Something"
The most important step forward in
the Guatemalan labor movement is the
formation of a new union federation,
CONUS. The leaders of past federa-
tions have been virtually wiped out.
Memories of June 21, 1980 are vivid:
27 leaders of the National Workers
Central (CNT) were disappeared from
union headquarters in one sweep.
Two months later 17 more were cap-
tured at a Catholic retreat. And yet
new leaders have emerged to take
their places.
One CONUS leader describes the
process: "After Fernando [Garcia, re-
cording secretary of the glass workers
union] was kidnapped, I was deter-
mined to do something. I began trying
to get people together, but they were
afraid. At the first meeting called to
form CONUS, there were only three
people. The others wanted to give up,
but I said no, we'll form an organizing
committee and the next meeting will
be bigger. At the next there were 18.
Now CONUS has approximately 30
unions affiliated." One index of the
severity of the repression the labor
movement has suffered is that
CONUS' predecessor, CNUS, had
150 member unions.
The federation has no address, no
phone. If a worker wants to find
CONUS, he or she must make per-
sonal contact with one of the leaders.
The organization does not have its
own press or mimeograph. As yet its
affiliates are only in Guatemala City.
"CONUS is not strong now, but it
will be," says Coke's Rodolfo Ro-
CONUS helps organize new un-
ions, and tries to give tactical and
political advice to the less experi-
enced. When the Tejidos Universales
company began removing machinery
from the factory-and two union lead-
ers disappeared--CONUS gave coun-
sel on how to deal with the Ministry of
Labor and how to obtain severance
CONUS issues bulletins (denun-
cias) about the continuing murders of
trade unionists and about government
and employer violations of union
rights. Sometimes the bulletins are
distributed at bus stops; more often,
because of the danger, they are hand-
ed out inside the factories. The May 1
bulletin explained that CONUS was
not calling a May Day demonstration
this year. The last time the Guatema-
lan movement gathered on May Day,
in 1980, 90 people were disappeared
that same day, either picked out of the
crowd or taken from their homes later
that evening. The bodies of three
workers were discovered wrapped in
the banner they'd carried in the
march. This year, the only May Day
celebration was the Coke workers',
REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 16behind the walls of the occupied fac-
Normalcy And Terror
It is almost possible to forget for
a moment that the Guatemalan labor
movement functions under the shad-
ow of the death squads. Problems are
similar to those of unions anywhere.
The employers seek ways to get
around the contract. Labor courts are
unbearably slow, and stacked against
workers. Leaders complain about low
membership levels. And normal activ-
ity continues: contracts are negotiat-
ed. Union officials are full-time and
paid by the employer. Some unions
have dues check-off. In some respects
the labor laws, first promulgated in
1947 under the democratic govern-
ment of Juan Jos6 Ar6valo, are more
progressive than those in this country.
"The employer is honoring the
contract 100% now," says a member
of the executive committee of STI-
CAVSA, the 400-member glass work-
ers' union. But on February 18, dur-
ing the bargaining that produced this
contract, one of the union negotiators
was kidnapped off the street and has
not been seen since. The other leaders
stayed inside the plant for 32 days af-
ter his disappearance. Now they will
try to negotiate an addendum to the
contract, to ensure that the dependents
of any worker who is disappeared will
continue to receive his salary.
The government of General Oscar
Humberto Mejia Victores appears
willing to allow a degree of union or-
ganization and activity as long as it re-
mains within the bounds of strictly
union concerns and does not become
overtly anti-government. Thus when
asked about the effect on labor of set-
backs suffered by the guerrilla move-
ment, union leaders invariably reply
that there is no connection between
the two struggles.
In June a reform slate took office in
SCTM, the municipal workers' union
in Guatemala City. It took two-thirds
of the votes with an eight-point pro-
gram that could have been lifted from
a similar program in any U.S. city.
The program calls for higher wages
and weekly paychecks. The SCTM
A priest says mass in the warehouse for the occupying Coke workers.
leaders want an end to outside con-
tracting, unjust firings, forced early
retirement and having to provide their
own tools. Asked about government
repression, they say their business is
not with the government but with the
mayor. One of their biggest problems
is that only about 3,000 of the city's
7,000 employees are union members;
the office workers and profession-
als-las corbatas (the ties)--consider
themselves above the street cleaners,
drivers, construction workers and
park employees from which the new
slate is largely drawn.
It sounds familiar. But in May
another compafiero was added to the
union's list of martyrs. The incoming
grievance chairman lived at the union
hall for two months. "This is what
can happen," he says, "when you
don't have a strong union."
Fragile Upturn
Two recent strikes signal improved
opportunities for union activity. After
receiving no paychecks for four
weeks, workers in a Chimaltenango
factory an hour's drive from the capi-
tal struck for three and a half days in
protest. They received two weeks'
pay. And workers at the ALINSA
aluminum plant appear to have been
inspired by the Coke example. On
June 17, management fired 12 union
members and five members of the ex-
ecutive committee, reducing the
workforce to only 19. The workers
occupied the plant, and other unions
came to their aid. CONUS came to the
plant on the second day. Over 20 un-
ions sent telegrams to the employer
and to the Ministry of Labor and
bought radio time for denuncias. The
Coke union got its international feder-
ation to send telegrams, even though
the strikers were not federation mem-
bers. Though impressive, the solidar-
ity was unsuccessful in reversing the
firings, and management accom-
plished its goal of busting the union:
under Guatemalan law a union must
have at least 20 members.
Union leaders are cautious when
speaking of the upturn in activity.
"It's a change for the moment," says
one union officer. "Trade union lib-
erty does not exist. But necessity is
making us struggle."
"We don't want to be martyrs,"
says another union leader. And yet
they continue the same activities that
have caused the deaths of so many of
their fellow members. The history of
the Guatemalan labor movement is the
history of its martyrs. Unions have
been wise to develop the custom of
rotating leadership. At selection time
the incumbents will step aside to
allow others to gain experience. In
this way Guatemalan workers have
been able to keep the government
from destroying the movement by
picking off its leaders.

Tags: Guatemala, labor movement, Coca Cola, occupation, unions

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