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- tory. 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- tatorship. 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- 36 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 murdered. 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- SeptlOct 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 (UFCWI, AFL-CIO). The UCFWI; 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 E 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- ished. 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 workers. 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- temala. The victory, nevertheless, is an 38 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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