Anthropologists Demand Coca-Cola Boycott

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,, 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.

8 thoughts on “Anthropologists Demand Coca-Cola Boycott

  1. I haven’t generated, nor read, critiques of business-by-business boycotts, but I feel like one is itching to be written (if it doesn’t already exist). The coca-cola boycott makes me feel the same way the Wal-mart boycott does: I am totally sympathetic to the ends, but know already that I am not going to be a part of the means. I probably drink 2 cans of Coke per week, and I am certain I go to Wal-Mart once or twice a month. I really don’t want to stop doing either.

    So — maybe this just demonstrates that I am a selfish wanker (here I modestly wave aside your shouts of “no, no”). But I also think that successful political action should sort of model, in itself, the end-goal: do we want a more participatory democracy? Let’s get it by participating! But it is definitely NOT one of my goals to live in a world free of sweet carbonated drinks nor of vast storehouses of goods. I think these kinds of boycotts appeal only to those people who find these means appealing also as ends: they want a world with no Coke and no Wal-Mart (along with no terrorized unionists — but I’m only on board for this last bit).

    I also don’t like the privatization of politics that these boycotts presuppose and entail. Do we get a better world by systematically taking out one “multinational company” after another, or — by making sure that the rules by which such companies are regulated are good rules and enforced rules? The latter only can happen via states, the entities toward which I continue to believe most political action should be oriented.

    That being said, I do follow most animal cruelty boycotts, but that’s because I think public support for anti-vivisection legislation is quite weak and so the consumer method is the better bet there.

  2. From what I’ve read such boycotts are most effective when they are in coordinated support with local activists, as is the case here.

    I think you know more about South American politics than I do, but isn’t the abdication of state power in the face of the Colombian paramilitaries one of the issues here?

  3. Well, I’m no authority on the situation in Colombia. But yes, it would make sense that a “private” kind of pressure is being advocated in the absence of a good “state” option (because the state has a limited ability to function in Colombia). At the same time, I feel like, isn’t what Colombians need a good fair functional state? And is pushing on coca-cola going to do much to accomplish that? I wonder the same thing about sweatshop campaigns etc: like, is the problem Nike using sweatshop labor or the government of country X allowing sweatshop labor to exist at all? I just am worried by the whole process, the pushing on private industry to do what states can’t or won’t. Do we ultimately want Coca-Cola or Nike as the guarantors of fair labor? After all, we don’t get to vote (except as consumers) on “Nike” or “CC” policy.

  4. FYI – there will be a session at the 2006 Meetings of the Society for the Anthropology of North America on this issue, consisting of a roundtable with Lesley Gill, Camilo Romero of United Students Against Sweatshops, Terry Collingsworth of the International Labor Rights Fund, Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign Inc., and William Mendoza of SinalTrainal, and an open discussion to follow — at which the same issues you and the commenters being brought up here surely will be discussed.

    The SANA meetings are being held April 20-22 in NYC. For info see

    The Coca Cola panel is tentatively scheduled for Friday morning.

    Julian Brash
    Conference Chair
    2006 SANA Meetings

  5. Folks are correct to be concerned about the difficulties of a boycott. This is a very different situation than the AAA has faced with the hotels. I suggest that we take a step back and look at the role of a boycott to understand what the various resolutions that have been passed by AAA sections and the AAA Labor Relations Commission are asking.

    Unlike the hotel strife, where our power is in our ability to bring business to particular hotels, in a boycott situation our power is in bringing attention to bear on a business’s practices. Coke spends a larger amount on their image than most developing countries have in GDP. That image-management is our target.

    Whether Ozma or other individual members buy a Coke on their way to work or even from their mini-bar in a contract hotel is immaterial. In exclusive-contract hotels, the EB and sections could decide one-by-one to carefully order food and beverages for their events, letting members know ahead of time that beverages other than tap water will not be provided.

    But this, ultimately, doesn’t matter either. The power we have is in Coke’s careful management of its image and the public pressure we can bring to bear on Coke through our statements, through reports to Coke reps from hotel food and beverage managers, and through (once again) providing leadership for other professional associations.

    In addition to the SANA session, there will be another panel at the 2006 AAA. I hope that we will also discuss this and other labor issues at a forum the LRC has been given.

  6. I am also agree with the other anthropologists regarding Coca Cola due its present performance.

    Dr. Md. Abul Hashem
    Resource and Human Development Association (REHUDA)
    House# 7, Ground Floor, Flat # C, Road# 1, Block E, Banasree, Rampura,
    Dhaka-1219, Bangladesh. Phone: 0088-02-7287501
    Fax: 0088-02-7286415 Mobile:0088-0189488351

  7. Has anyone tried Mecca-cola? Or Cola Turka? These are more interesting forms of protest: as Mecca-cola think of it ‘putting the economy to work in the interest of ideology’ – that is, a Muslim ideology, whereby 10-20% of profits are donated to Palistinian causes. I haven’t come across many anthropological analyses of these new Cola’s but Derya Özkan and Rob Foster have a nice paper on Cola Turka, available online complete with amusing mpeg adverts…starring Chevy Chase.

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