Colombian trade unionists take campaign to US – meanwhile 4 more colleagues assassinated

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During two months when trade unionists from Colombia were visiting America to take part in trade union training – four of their colleagues were assassinated.

The Colombian workers participated in the Trade Union Strengthening programme sponsored by the Solidarity Centre, which gets funding and support from the US Department of Labor. A memorial service at AFL-CIO in Washington DC was called to honour those killed.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said: ‘We want our Colombian sisters and brothers to know we are totally dedicated to their struggle to organise and collectively bargain in an atmosphere free of fear, terror and violence. Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for trade unionists, where 34 have been killed in Colombia this year, 10 deaths in the past eight weeks alone.

Jose Diogenes Orjuela Garcia, organising director of the Colombian CUT union federation, said at the memorial service: ‘If you add up all the acts of violence against union members there have been more than 10,000 in the past 20 years’.

Both made it clear that the United States should not sign the Colombia-US Free Trade Agreement until the violence against union members ends.

Shuler said: ‘We cannot permit a permanent trade instrument that incorporates a labour market based on the literal assassination of workers and their unions. For us, these struggles are one and the same. We are fighting for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act to end the unchecked violations of organising and collective bargaining rights by employers in this country, and to set a new standard for the United States and its corporations operating in Colombia and throughout the globe.’

Meanwhile, activists from the US and Colombia targeted the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, Georgia, accusing the company of ‘union busting’, paying its workers ‘poverty wages’, and engaging in environmentally destructive practices.

Lew Friedman, of the ‘Killer Coke’ protest organisation said: ‘We’re an unofficial coalition with the India Resource Centre, focusing on Coca-Cola overusing waters in drought areas. We’re working on behalf of Sinaltrainal, the food workers in Colombia. They had eight union leaders murdered. We’ve been augmenting their legal suit.

Sinaltrainal v. Coca-Cola was filed in 2001 by the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labour Rights Fund on behalf of the Colombian trade union Sinaltrainal, and the estate of Isidro Gil, one of its officers who was murdered. Coca-Cola bottlers ‘contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilise extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders’, the lawsuit states.

In addition, ‘Killer Coke’ claims that many of the Colombian paramilitary troops were trained at a controversial School of the Americas, now called the US Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Economic Cooperation, in Fort Benning, Georgia.

In 2003, the US District Court removed Coca-Cola as a defendant in the case because the murders took place in Colombia, not in the US, but two Coca-Cola bottlers remained as defendants in the case. In 2006, the judge dismissed the remaining claims. Friedman said Coca-Cola has predictably denied the allegations.

While much of the ‘Killer Coke’ focus seemed to be on the Colombian trade union issue, other issues involve the alleged use of child labour in other countries and questions about the healthiness of Coca-Cola products in general.

‘Killer Coke’ has been successful at getting over 50 US colleges and universities to stop selling Coke, and at getting the Service Employee Industrial Union (SEIU) and teachers’ unions to stop carrying Coke in their offices. ‘Killer Coke’ decided to target Coca-Cola headquarters by driving a mobile billboard around town that read, ‘Don’t Drink Killer Coke Zero: Zero Ethics, Zero Justice, Zero Health’, a pun on Coke Zero, which is a near-zero calorie beverage.

Ian Hoffmann, a young activist from Minnesota said: ‘People are saying it’s an anti-union company. Coca-Cola usually says “We’re an Atlanta-based company. What happens in Colombia is out of our control, and more importantly, not our responsibility,” even though the bottling plants are bottling Coca-Cola products and helping the company with huge profits.’

‘I’d like them to acknowledge what’s going on there, why after the union leader gets shot dead, the next day no one signs a new contract with the union Sinaltrainal,’ Hoffmann said, acknowledging it is difficult to go up against a multinational like Coca-Cola. They are a brand name that has forced their way into every American fridge. – a Coke culture, starting out with those Santa Claus ads.’

At the protest, activists played a recording of a contemporary folk song called, ‘Coke is the Drink of the Death Squads’.

Using a translator Martha Giraldo, 31, of Colombia, charged bottling plants with ‘using temporary workers on contracts three months or less long, and not paying a just wage’. Giraldo said: ‘It’s not true what Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton says about Colombia, that we’re safe and live in peace. In Colombia there are four million internally displaced people, who’ve been driven off their land because of terror campaigns by the paramilitary.

‘In addition to fumigating coca crops, food crops and reducing water sources, approximately 30,000 people disappeared in Colombia. We’re here in front of one of the symbols of capitalism, a company that operates perverse ways of accumulating capital.’

OPSEU (public service union) organised a special screening of the National Film Board movie, ‘The Coca-Cola Case’ which allegedly showed rampant human rights abuses by the Coca-Cola Corporation in factories, sugar cane fields and small communities across the developing world with a focus on Coca-Cola’s bottling plants in Colombia.

The Uribe government stands by and allows companies like Coca-Cola to act with complete impunity. A Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement will only legitimise this impunity’. Colombia has the highest trade union murder rate in the world. Since 2002, more than 470 activists and workers have been kidnapped, tortured, and executed for their union affiliation.