Guatemalan Labor-Coke Boycott Wins (For Now)

September 25, 2007

After five years of bitter strug-
gle, the workers of the Embotella-
dora Guatemalteca, S.A. (EGSA)
-the U.S.-owned Coca-Cola fran-
chise in Guatemala-have won an
agreement guaranteeing com-
pany recognition for their union
and full trade union rights. Pres-
sure exerted on the Coca-Cola
Company by the international
trade union movement, especially
the International Union of Food
and Allied Workers' Associations
(IUF), played a key role in this vic-
Attacks against the EGSA union
have taken the lives of three of its
secretaries general and several
other union members. In May and
June of this year alone, five Coca-
Cola workers were assassinated
and four more were kidnapped.
"Coca-Cola is becoming a lead-
ing brand name of oppression
here," said a U.S. investor quoted
in Newsweek, "and believe me,
they've got heavy competition for
that market." The EGSA union has
become a symbol-both within
Guatemala and internation-
ally-of the resistance of Guate-
malan workers to U.S. corporate
domination and the military dic-
Israel Marquez, former Secre-
tary General of the union, now liv-
ing in exile after three attempts on
his life, places the principal re-
sponsibility for the killings and in-
timidation on plant manager John
Clinton Trotter. Trotter, a Texas
lawyer and member of the John
Birch Society, blames union mem-
bers for the violence. "They're
part of a ruthless worldwide com-
munist campaign against big com-
panies like Coca-Cola."
Trotter's anti-communism par-
allels that of the military regime,
without whose complicity and par-
ticipation, the repression of the
union could not be carried out.
Five Years of Struggle
Since its formation in August
1975, the EGSA union has been
intimidated by management
through physical assaults, assas-
sinations, imprisonment, firings
and such legalistic maneuvers as
the financing of a pro-manage-
ment "Employees' Association"
and the division of the franchise in-
to separate legal entities. Legal
recognition of the union wasn't
gained until April 1976 when, after
150 fired union members occupy-
ing the plant were violently evicted
by the police, 50 unions threat-
ened to go out on strike in solidar-
ity. Since February of this year,
however, the workers have been
laboring without a contract.
Repression of the union has es-
calated since April of this year,
when 28 workers were fired. Five
of them were subsequently kid-
napped during a May 1 protest in
Guatemala City and two have
since been found murdered. On
May 16, the president of the Em-
ployees' Association was mur-
dered, reportedly for having asked
to resign his position, and on May
22, the 22-year-old Secretary Gen-
eral of the union, Marlon Men-
dizabal, was killed.
On June 20, the Fuerzas Arma-
das Rebeldes (FAR)-one of Gua-
temala's four major armed revolu-
tionary organizations--re-
sponded to the attacks on the
union by killing Lt. Francisco
Javier Rojas (Ret.) head of the
company's union-busting cam-
paign. Early this year, Lt. Rodas
reportedly told members of the
union's executive committee that
none of them would live to see the
signing of a new contract. Only
eight hours after the Rodas killing,
a member of the union's executive
committee, Edgar Rene Aldana,
was kidnapped from the plant and
On June 21, 27 trade unionists
(including two EGSA workers)
were kidnapped by police from the
headquarters of the National
Workers' Central (CNT).
These and other actions
prompted a majority of the work-
ers at Coca-Cola, including mem-
bers of the Employees' Associa-
tion, to occupy the plant. Work
stoppages spread to twenty other
factories to demand the release of
the kidnapped workers. But on
July 1, the occupation was brutally
ended when police stormed the
EGSA plant, kidnapped two work-
ers and beat the rest.
The IUF Campaign
Throughout this period, the
Coca-Cola Company stuck to its
position that it does not interfere
with management-labor relations
of its franchises and that, in any
case, there was insufficient evi-
dence linking EGSA management
to the violence. It took IUF's inter-
national campaign of work stop-
pages, consumer andlor sales
boycotts in a dozen countries, to
force the company to accept re-
sponsibility for the anti-union
NACLA Reportupdate * update . update * update
EGSA union leaders in their office in April. Secretary General Mendizbal, center left, was later killed, and Florentino Gomez Lopez, center right, was abducted.
repression at the EGSA plant.
The IUF demanded that Coca-
Cola withdraw Trotter's license
and guarantee recognition of the
union and respect for basic trade
union rights at its Guatemala
plant. They urged the parent com-
pany to buy the EGSA plant as the
only practical solution, given Trot-
ter's intransigence and the diffi-
culty of finding another buyer.
"The company said there was no
violation of the franchise agree-
ment and that it would be too ex-
pensive to buy out Trotter," said
Laurent Enckell, U.S. represen-
tative of the IUF. "We warned
them that our boycott would be
more expensive."
Boycott actions, beginning on
April 15, 1980, were carried out in
several European countries, Can-
ada, Australia and New Zealand,
as well as in Mexico, where a
street demonstration supported
the demands of Guatemalan Co-
ca-Cola workers, and in Venezue-
la, where the Beverage Workers'
Federation staged 15-minute stop-
pages in all five Coca-Cola bottling
plants. The Hotel and Restaurant
Workers' Federation of Venezuela
initiated a national sales boycott of
the drink.
The Coca-Cola Company also
received considerable pressure
from independent bottlers in var-
ious countries, especially in Scan-
dinavia, who were affected by the
boycott. According to Enckell, not
one of the independent bottlers
sided with Trotter in the dispute.
In the United States, six unions
are affiliated with the IUF, includ-
ing 200,000 food processing work-
ers in the 1.3 million member
United Food and Commercial
Workers' International Union
the Bakery, Confectionary and To-
bacco Workers' Union; the Inter-
national Association of Machinists
and the United Auto Workers all
lent their voices of protest to the
o a c a h
campaign, but no boycott actions were launched in the United States.
Coke Comes to Terms
From the beginning of the soli-
darity campaign, the Coca-Cola
Company tried to stop the planned
boycott without ever assuming re-
sponsibility for the Guatemalan
situation. As the starting date of
the boycott neared, the company
entered into frequent negotiations
with the IUF, and made efforts to
attract buyers for the franchise.
At the same time, the company
distributed misleading reports
about the imminent sale of the fac-
tory, their willingness to accept the
IUF's demands and the cancella-
tion of the boycott. Meanwhile, the
repression of the union escalated,
and there was no evidence that
Trotter's influence had dimin-
When the IUF insisted on the
company itself buying the fran-
chise and made clear its inten-
tions to escalate its international
campaign, and events at the plant
again reached crisis proportions
by the end of June, Coke's hand
was forced. In July, Coca-Cola
gave in on virtually all points.
The company agreed to finance
a consortium, in which it will parti-
cipate as a minority shareholder
(35%), to purchase EGSA. It will
appoint new management, retain
control for five years, and guaran-
tee full trade union rights at the
plant. To substantiate this last
point, the company agreed that
the president of the consortium
will sign a statement agreeing to:
(1) remove all police forces from
the plant; (2) replace all manage-
ment personnel associated with
Trotter; (3) reinstate workers dis-
missed by Trotter; (4) recognize
the union and withdraw all support
37update * update * update update
from the association; (5) renegoti-
ate the contract on improved
terms. The company also pledged
to take steps with government
authorities to assure the agree-
ment is not undermined by further
violence, and to consider the es-
tablishment of a fund to aid the
families of assassinated EGSA
Coca-Cola has put up the
money for the purchase of EGSA
and the sale has already taken
place. According to IUF represen-
tative Enckell, Coca-Cola paid
three times the actual value of the
franchise, highlighting the effec-
tiveness of the boycott. The IUF
has asked affiliated unions to sus-
pend any new actions until the end
of September.
The Value of International Solidarity
Organized labor in Guatemala
and the popular movement as a
whole have in recent months
taken a more overtly political posi-
tion, calling for the overthrow of
the dictatorship and the installa-
tion of a revolutionary, popular and
democratic government. Guerrilla
activities have increased dramat-
ically in spite of the Guatemalan
Army's counterinsurgency efforts.
In response, assassinations by gov-
ernment-controlled right-wing
paramilitary squads and govern-
ment security forces have risen to
20 or more daily, and the govern-
ment and the right wing seem
more intransigent than ever.
It is therefore doubtful that the
victory of the Coca-Cola workers
-assuming continued adherence
to the agreement and successful
negotiation of a contract-will
lead to any reduction of govern-
ment and management repres-
sion of the labor movement in Gua-
The victory, nevertheless, is an
example for the Guatemalan peo-
ple of what the determination of
workers' organization, with inter-
national support, and at the cost of
many lives, can accomplish. It
also demonstrates the importance
of enlisting progressive sectors of
the international trade union
movement in the struggle against
anti-union transnational corpora-
tions and a political system that
guarantees their existence, for
this victory could not have been
won, considering the genocidal re-
pression prevailing in Guatemala,
without the IUF-led campaign.
Support for the Coke boycott by
the labor movement in the U.S.
was minimal compared to the
rank-and-file actions taken in other
countries. However, as their lim-
ited participation in the Coca-Cola
campaign showed, some sectors
of the U.S. labor movement are
moving slowly towards support for
the struggle of the Guatemalan
labor movement and the Guate-
malan people as a whole. A tourist
boycott of Guatemala, sponsored
by the IUF, has received the en-
dorsement of the UAW, the
UFCWI and the Bakery, Confec-
tionary and Tobacco Workers'
Union. And Douglas Fraser, Presi-
dent of the UAW, has written to
members of Congress asking
them to oppose U.S. military aid to
the Lucas Garcia government.
-John Fried is a member of the
Committee of Solidarity with
the People of Guatemala. For
further information, contact the
Committee at PO. Box 270
Wycoff Heights Station, Brook-
lyn, N. Y 11237

Tags: Guatemala, Coca Cola, labor union, strike, international solidarity

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