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Report and Critique of Siptu Public Meeting on Colombia

Gearoid O Loingsigh

26th May 2004

This is a report and reply to some of the points raised at the Siptu public meeting on Colombia.  As this report is also being circulated in Britain we would like to deal briefly with some points raised in an open letter from Siptu to the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) who recently voted to back the boycott of Coke at their annual conference.  Siptu is the union which unionises the workers the Coke bottling plants in the south of Ireland and also in one of the concentrate plants in Drogheda; the other concentrate plant in Ballina is non union.  We replied to this letter with one of our own which readers in Britain may not have read (available on the Irish Times website)

The letter signed by the president of Region 1 Siptu Jack McGinely and two of the shop stewards makes a number of points which are in our view misleading and also politically dangerous from the point of view of trade unionists.

They claim

1. All Coca Cola products sold from Belfast are produced by a franchise company for markets on the island of Ireland.

2. This franchise company has no involvement whatsoever in Colombia.

3. The cola concentrate companies based in Ballina and Drogheda – which are directly owned by Coca-Cola – will not be affected by the boycott because their production is for export only.

4. A rolling boycott will affect the jobs of workers in Belfast and Dublin.

The arguments advanced are strange ones for trade unionists.  Yes it is true that the products are made by a franchise company which does not operate in Colombia.  This ignores the fact that all finished Coke products are made by franchise companies all over the world.  It would be very difficult for a consumer to directly boycott Coke.  However, Coke has a close and controlling relationship with its franchise companies and in many cases owns shares in them.  This is the case in Ireland where the franchise is owned by the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company (CCHBC).  This company is the third largest bottler in the Coke system with factories in Ireland and Italy and much of Eastern Europe.

Expansion through franchise operations is the way Coke has expanded with very little capital investment on its part.  This is a normal way of operations for many companies and were we to accept this argument we would never be able to challenge any company ever, as all operate in a similar fashion outsourcing contracts, sub dividing themselves to avail of tax breaks and other fiscal opportunities.  Arms companies also do this outsourcing production.  It has been found that Irish companies have been involved in the software developed to trigger nuclear missiles through an outsourcing arrangement. If we accept the way multinationals organise themselves then we are left without arguments before we even begin.

The third and fourth point they raise is really a development of the other two and although they do not mean it in this way, points to other targets that are “more deserving of a boycott”.  They claim the boycott will not affect the concentrate plants.  The implication is that if it did (and it does; we shall deal with that soon) then the boycott would be OK.  Here we have a union accepting the division of workers according to the economic unit they represent or their place in the chain of production.  It is worrying that a union would see things in that way.  Workers should not be divided by their role in the multinational.  Either Coke deserves to be boycotted or it doesn’t.

Furthermore, the concentrate plants profits will be affected.  They supply most of Europe with the concentrate.  As the boycott is international any fall off in sales in Europe will decrease demand for concentrate from Ireland.  It is also to be presumed that the Irish bottling plants get their concentrate from the same source as the rest of Europe.  Either way, this fake division along the lines of the chain of production doesn’t hold water.

Nobody wishes to see workers unemployed, but it is up to the company to resolve the situation before it gets to that point.  All industrial action, strikes, work to rule etc have the potential to affect jobs.  It has never been the argument that jobs are the yardstick by which all actions are to be measured.  Nobody in Ireland would argue for Sellafield to be kept open on the grounds that its closure would affect jobs, though everybody would want to see alternatives offered to those affected by the closure.  Similarly the aim is not to close Coke but to force it to resolve the situation at their plants in Colombia.

Now on to the meeting.  We should point out that the meeting was recorded on mini disk and if anyone feels misquoted then we can arrange for a transcription of the offending part.

The meeting was disappointing on a number of levels.  The Latin America Solidarity Centre managed to round up seven people to attend the meeting.  Little did we realised that we would be just under half of those in attendance.  There were a number of officials from the union, two shopstewards and three other people who arrived with the shop stewards who did not speak at any time and therefore we don’t know whether they were more shop stewards.

We have been told from the beginning of the boycott campaign that the workers at the bottling plants are very concerned about the possible loss of jobs and that they are in solidarity with the Colombian trade unionists.  Yet, when the largest union in the country with 200,000 members organises a meeting on Colombia at the request of the shop stewards at Coke (that is the sequence of events outlined by the union official present) the attendance was only 5 people connected with the plant plus a handful of officials.  The question arises as to why there were so few people there, does this issue register at the bottling plants in the manner being claimed.  The only reason Lasc organised a group of people to go was that we felt a) there would an attempt made to undermine the boycott and b) we would get the chance to directly address coke workers in Ireland.  We were wrong on the second point but were right on the first point.

Two speakers were invited from Justice for Colombia a British based trade union group.  Both speakers, and in particular Liam Craig Best, argued against the boycott.  We would like to deal with some of their points.  The discussion was dishonest in some respects.  Liam read from the IUF statement that the allegations were “sweeping and unsubstantiated” and claimed that Coke had no difficulty in refuting the allegations and that so much so the suit was thrown out in the courts in Miami.  Justice for Colombia know that this is not the case.  They know that the case wasn’t thrown out, that the case proceeds against the two bottling companies Panamco (40% owned by the Coke) and Bebidas S.A.  They know that the parent company was removed from the case on a technicality surrounding the nature of bottling agreements in place in Colombia.  That they rely on the exact same argument as Coca-Cola is a damning indictment of a group which claims to be a trade union group.  Further the courts were never considered as the final arbiter when it came to the rights of workers.  In fact most trade unions have complained about the nature and class character of the courts and their decisions.

That Justice for Colombia relies on these arguments indicates that at the meeting there was no disagreement about the tactics to be pursued but about the substance of the case.  Justice for Colombia were asked on two occasions about whether it was the case that Coke had a case to answer.  On the second occasion a more detailed response was given by Liam Craig Best when he stated that in his personal opinion it is probably the case.  He then went on to introduce a variant of a caveat that Coke uses itself.  The argument of Coke is that they are just caught in the middle.  Justice for Colombia argued that they blame the State.  That yes, the multinationals may facilitate the paramilitaries but it is the State we must concentrate on.  The argument is not as straightforward and were we to accept it, not only would we lose the ability to tackle multinationals a good deal of the murders in Colombia would be put down to unknown actors, as quite a number of them are directly related to the activities of multinationals.

It is true that the paramilitaries are a State strategy not just to deal with the guerrillas but also with trade unions and very importantly with social movements, indigenous groups etc.

In 1965 a decree gave the army the right to set up paramilitary groups.  This became law in 1968 and remained in force until the 1990s when the constitutional court overturned the law.  Since then the State has come up with other methods of legalising paramilitary groups such as the Convivir or the most recent incarnation of “Peasant Soldiers”.

The role of multinational capital cannot be ignored in this process.  Why for example did the paramilitary group AAA set up in the 1970s by the then Major Harold Bedoya disappear and the groups set up in Puerto Boyaca in the early 1980s succeed to expand and eventually develop into the current model?  Part of the answer is economic.  Carlos Medina Gallego,  one of the foremost experts on the rise of paramilitaries in Colombia has detailed how the Puerto Boyaca group was set up by the 14th brigade of the army cattle ranchers, oil companies (Texaco) and the local political elites.  It was the decision by these sources and in particular the new narco bourgeoisie of Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha to finance the paramilitaries that was of crucial importance to their success.
Likewise today, the city of Barrancabermeja is controlled by the paramilitaries.  They have succeeded where the Naval Intelligence 07 Network failed.  There are various political and military factors to take into account.  However, the paramilitaries have held on this city as they now control the contracting system for casual labour with the State oil company Ecopetrol.  Control over resources is important.

However, were we to accept the argument of only blaming the State we could not explain the violence in the gold mining regions of Southern Bolivar.  Nor could we explain why the U’wa tribe who have refused to allow OXY begin oil prospecting on their land suddenly find themselves the targets of death squads.

How else would we explain why the US government donated $98 million to set up and army unit in Arauca which would protect the oil pipeline through which oil belonging to US multinationals flows?

Or why many US multinationals actively lobbied and campaigned in favour of the military plan known as Plan Colombia which saw as massive increase in funding for the Colombian army and consequently the death squads.

The argument put forward turns accepted thinking on its head.  Third World countries such as Colombia are not sovereign they are dependent capitalist economies.  Every campaign launched by NGOs , solidarity groups, trade unions etc against initiatives such as the ill fated MAI, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the WTO etc accepts that these are dependent economies and cannot be said to exercise sovereignty freely.  If we do as Colombia for Justice states that we exclude or minimise the role of multinationals then we ignore a major component of the problem.

The meeting was disappointing on another level.  Siptu has issued various statements on the question the boycott and given a number of interviews to the press.  An excerpt from one article (Irish Independent 11/10/2003) was read out where comments were attributed to Anne Speed the Siptu Official that it whilst all was not right in Colombia it was a big step to accuse to Coke of having any involvement in paramilitary activity against trade unionists.

This issue has come up time and time again.  To date we have had no clarification from Siptu as to whether they believe they think Coke has a case to answer.  They argue against the boycott on tactical grounds and ask for it to be lifted but when challenged they do not state that Coke has a case to answer.  If we are discussing tactics then we should be agreed on the broad reasons for any tactic, we should agree on the issue.  However, it appears that Siptu doesn’t agree on the issue.  At Trinity College they said it was a matter for the courts.  What their actual position is, it would seem, is that Coke don’t have a case to answer.  If we are wrong in this assertion, let them release a public statement clarifying their position.

It is not surprising therefore, that at the meeting, almost a year after the boycott was launched, Siptu did not come forward with any concrete plans for solidarity, though some mention was made of a day of action.  No specifics were given, though if they are serious, and we hope they are, it would be a very good idea and a concrete example of solidarity.  However, Jack McGinley tempered that by saying that Sinaltrainal would have to meet them half way on the issue, which presumably means calling off the boycott.

Siptu have further proposed that a delegation go to Colombia in November.  This would also be a good idea, but there is a delegation going in June to meet with Sinaltrainal and nobody from ICTU is going on it.  It would have been a good opportunity to meet with Sinaltrainal.

It was pointed out at the meeting that the boycott in Ireland was not launched unawares on the trade union movement.  A Colombian trade unionist who addressed the ICTU biennial conference last year announced the boycott in a plenary session and also a fringe meeting where he went into substantial detail.  He received a standing ovation.  If the trade union movement had a problem with this, they should have raised it then.  They didn’t because they didn’t think anyone would actually act on the call, they were wrong.

Those interested in the issues surrounding Coke in Colombia should continue with the boycott.  If the trade union movement has concerns about the tactics of boycott they should raise them, but not as a smokescreen to avoid the substantial issues of the murder of Coke employees and the allegations of the involvement of Coke in this.  A debate on tactics can only take place when we are agreed about the issues.  First comes the issue, then come the tactics and it is not clear what the trade union movement or Justice for Colombia think the issue is.



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