A lot of people are upset about Coca-Cola’s purported involvement in the violent suppression of trade unions at its Columbian bottling plants. You can, for instance, visit KillerCoke.org, CokeWatch.org, the Students Against Sweatshops Coke Campaign, or the Spanish language site run by Colombian Food and Beverage Workers. Most recently, anthropologists have joined the fray: the Association for Feminist Anthropology, the Anthropology and Environment Section, the Society for the Anthropology of North America, the Society for Latin American Anthropology, the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, and the Society for the Anthropology of Work have all adopted a resolution demanding a boycott of Coca-Cola until these issues are adequately addressed.
The catalyst for this action seems to be Lesley Gill’s recent essay in Transforming Anthropology, “Labor and Humanrights: ‘The Real Thing’ in Colombia” (PDF download). It is worth reading the first few paragraphs in full:
Being a trade unionist in Colombia is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. The statistics paint a gruesome picture. By 2004, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores-the country’s largest trade union confederation-had lost four thousand members since it was founded in 1986, including nearly all of its founders. Seventy-eight were murdered in 2003, and twenty-eight were assassinated in the first five months of 2004. During the early years of the twenty-first century, nearly three-quarters of murdered unionists in the world died in Colombia (International Labor Commission 2004). Hundreds of Colombian working people were threatened, displaced, attacked, detained, kidnapped, and forced into exile. Right-wing paramilitary groups affiliated with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) committed the majority of murders, and they targeted union leaders disproportionately.
The violence of Colombia’s decades-long civil war does not explain the dire situation faced by Colombian unionists. Murdered workers are not the product of indiscriminate, chaotic violence, nor are they the collateral damage of civilians caught between warring groups. They are the victims of a calculated and selective strategy carried out by sectors of the state, allied paramilitaries, and some employers to weaken and eliminate trade unions. It is a strategy that emerges from, and is facilitated by, pervasive impunity. Of the nearly four thousand trade unionists murders since 1986, only five people have been convicted. That represents a rate of impunity of almost 100 percent (International Labor Commission 2004).1 Most of the rights violations are connected to specific labor conflicts, such as strikes, protests, and contract negotiations in which selective assassinations, arbitrary arrests, detentions, unlawful searches, and anonymous threats serve as tools of labor discipline. Targeted and discriminate violence has not only led to the death, exile, and displacement of hundreds of Colombian workers. It has also contributed to a climate of anti-unionism in which trade unions are associated with guerrilla insurgencies and unable to exercise their right to free association.
Multinational firms profit from the reduced effectiveness of trade unions that arises from the intimidation of workers by paramilitaries. Weak unions pose less resistance to job cuts, lowered wages, reduced benefits, and “flexible” contracts that are promoted by multinational corporations and that are emblematic of the new, neoliberal economic order. Yet in some cases multinationals do more than benefit from extra-judicial violence: they actually organize it. Such is the case with the Coca-Cola Company, according to Sinaltrainal (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de Alimentos), the food and beverage workers’ union that represents Coca-Cola workers in Colombia. On July 21, 2001, Sinaltrainal filed suit against the Coca-Cola Company and two of its Colombian bottlers in U.S. Federal District Court in Miami, charging that they collaborated with paramilitaries to murder and terrorize workers.
This post has been gleaned from those of Robert O’Brien on the AAA-UNITE blog, where he has recently been blogging more actively about issues affecting anthropology and labor. In this post he outlines a number of actions anthropologists (and others) can take to demand changes from Coke.
Coca-Cola responds to the charges here.