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  An Irish union and Coke – in partnership with terror

Gearoid O’Loingsigh

30th January 2004

The Colombian food and drinks industry trade union Sinaltrainal launched a world wide boycott of the Coca Cola company as part of its struggle with the American multinational.

The boycott was a complementary tool to the lawsuit that has been brought before the US courts where they have accused Coca Cola of using, or allowing to be used, right wing paramilitaries to wipe out the union.  So far eight union activists have been murdered in Colombia, a number of them inside the actual bottling plants.

The most prominent case is that of Isidro Segundo Gil, a trade unionist at the Carepa bottling plant in northern Colombia.  After the plant manager publicly stated that he would use the paramilitaries to finish off the union, Isidro was murdered inside the plant installations.  The entire union executive at the plant had to flee for their lives and the union’s office was sacked and then later occupied by the paramilitaries who used it as a public office for some time after.  Isidro’s case is key part of the lawsuit presented in Miami.

The boycott call launched in support of the lawsuit has received support from trade unions around the world and was adopted by the World Social Forum and the Latin American Social Forum.  It was launched on July 22nd by Carlos Rodríguez, the President of the Congress of Trade Unions in Colombia (CUT).  Here in Ireland the highest profile support that the Sinaltrainal union has received has been from the students in UCD who have voted twice in referenda to prohibit the sale of Coca Cola products on student union premises.


The reactions to this stand by the students have been varied.  The most nauseating response came from a SIPTU branch in the person of Anne Speed, a prominent member of Sinn Fein and a trade union bureaucrat of many years standing.  In the true spirit of Social Partnership, SIPTU rushed to the defence of the Coca Cola company claiming that the allegations were unfounded and spurious.

The Latin America Solidarity Centre requested a meeting between Sinaltrainal and SIPTU.  At the meeting SIPTU changed tack and tried to claim that they just disagreed with the tactic of a boycott.  However, their press release in which they said that the allegations were “sweeping and unsubstantiated” was read back to them.  Not surprisingly they had nothing to say.

The behaviour of SIPTU in this matter is not just a betrayal of the Colombian workers who have been assassinated but is also a betrayal of their own members.  Their argument is that the defence of jobs in a particular company takes precedence over everything else.  They ignore the fact that Coca Cola has been down sizing all over the world and that the new non union super plant in Ballina with its fully automated warehouse is a bigger threat to jobs than the boycott.

By publicly laying the blame for any future job losses on the boycott the union bureaucrats have paved the way for such redundancies.  They have sided with the company in this matter and have publicly accepted the argument that future job losses will be inevitable.

The SIPTU bureaucrats and the shop stewards in the Naas Road bottling plant have also defined the role of a trade union as a mechanism to maintain the market share of one particular company over and above all others.  Clearly if Coke lose out, other companies such as Pepsi and Cantrell & Cochrane will increase sales, such being the nature of the market. SIPTU now sees its duty to make sure that Coke maintains its market share and will stab Colombian trade unionists in the back in order to do so.

SIPTU tried to intervene in the referendum campaign in UCD.  UCD referendum rules only allow students to organise and there is a cap on spending.  This is to prevent outside vested interests flooding the campus with material in the run up to a vote.  The returning officer had to have “strong words” with SIPTU in order to get them to back off.  Basically he threatened to let the ban from the first referendum stand unless SIPTU refrained from interfering in the second.

The behaviour of SIPTU in the matter has been clearly pro company.  It was even stated at a meeting they held with Labour Party Youth that it was SIPTU that brought over a Coke representative from Atlanta to run a counter campaign to the Colombian union’s campaign.

What best sums up the SIPTU attitude are the words of Sinaltrainal’s representative Luis Eduardo Garcia who toured Ireland in November.  After meeting with SIPTU he stated that it “was like meeting with management… and I am surprised the degree to which the company’s thinking has penetrated the thinking of Irish trade unionists.  Luis Eduardo Garcia was of course unaware of the last 17 years of Social Partnership were trade union bureaucrats have told workers that their interests were the same as their bosses interests.  It is a very small step from that to thinking that it is in the interest of workers in Ireland to defeat a union in Colombia that actually fights to maintain living standards.

Enough said.  The campaign against Coke continues, as does the lawsuit in the US.  Likewise, the paramilitaries have not given up either.  Attacks against trade unionists and in particular Coca Cola trade unionists have continued unabated all year.

Boycott All Coke Products!  Coca Cola, Fanta, Lilt, Sprite, Deep Riverrock, Evian.


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