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Sinaltrainal in Ireland

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

17th November 2004

Sinaltrainal leader Edgar Paez came to Ireland as part of the union’s world wide campaign for a boycott of Coca Cola products in support of the union’s lawsuit against the company. Edgar was invited by Lasc. The invite to come was in the context of the motions of support from NIPSA and the TUI. For some strange reason NIPSA’s decision was not challenged by the SIPTU bureaucracy but they came down like a ton of bricks on the TUI leadership, demanding that its executive overturn the conference decision.

SIPTU has opposed the boycott from the very start. The food and drinks branch which unionises Coke workers has opposed the boycott and the trade union official for that branch, Ann Speed, has been very active in running an anti-boycott campaign. However, it is not as clear cut when it comes to the membership of the union. At the recent Dublin regional conference of SIPTU a vote was taken on a motion to disinvest union pension funds from Coca Cola. The regional executive almost unanimously opposed the motion as did the officials. However, despite a concerted campaign against the motion by the bureaucracy it was only narrowly defeated by 156 votes to 142, suggesting that perhaps the membership is not on the same wavelength as the bureaucracy.

Lasc invited Edgar Paez in the context of the SIPTU opposition and the rejection of their position by significant sections of the trade union movement. He met with a number of TDs and also with the TUI to encourage them not to give in to the pressure they are under to change their position.

He also met with SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor and with shop stewards and one or two workers delegates from Coca Cola. The meeting was cordial this time, though SIPTU reiterated its opposition to the boycott call. Mention was made of a day of action but Lasc pointed out that this would be in violation of the Industrial Relations Act. Though the shop steward who made this proposal said they would be willing to break the law the General President remained silent on the issue. It is highly unlikely that SIPTU would contemplate such a course of action which would see them run into conflict with the Industrial Relations Act over this issue when to date the act which is nothing more than an employer’s and scab’s charter has yet to be challenged in any significant way by the ICTU.

SIPTU did however, in a radio debate on Today FM state that they had no position on the substance of the allegations but only the boycott tactic. It is a rather strange situation where Siptu has no position on whether Coca Cola has murdered and tortured its employees but has a position on the union’s opposition to those murders. It is also at odds with their stated position available on their website and also repeated on numerous occasions in interviews. As the Irish Independent reported SIPTU was of the opinion that “concern about human rights was to be admired and Siptu would be aware that all was not right in Colombia in terms of trade union rights, but it was a “big step” to declare that Coca-Cola was supporting any paramilitary activity in relation to trade unionists.”

On their recent visit to Colombia SIPTU informed Sinaltrainal that they were of the opinion that Coca Cola couldn’t be blamed for the murder of the trade unionists even though the IUF told the visiting official Ann Speed that there was credible evidence in the case of Segundo Gil. In private correspondence to ICTU General Secretary David Begg, which was copied to Ann Speed of SIPTU, Ron Oswald of the IUF stated that “In the case of the 1996 murder in Carepa, it appears clear that, at the very least, local plant management did little or nothing to protect a local union leader who was killed by paramilitaries inside the plant. Based on information we have received from Colombia, we believe that specific allegations around this atrocity appear to have substance and we have therefore raised and are currently discussing this matter with the company.” This letter was sent to ICTU as far back as February of 2004.

They further recommended that the union work in cooperation with the company for the common good. A number of months ago I wrote an article entitled In Partnership With Terror, which stated that SIPTU’s position was the logical outcome of Social Partnership in Ireland. Needless to say that didn’t go down well. Now they are proposing that a union whose members are being murdered should work the multinational concerned.

The most promising aspect of Edgar’s visit was the invitation issued to all those who came to the meetings and to the wider trade union movement to visit Colombia in July 2005 as part of an Irish delegation. However, if the campaign in Ireland is to be successful it will need to go beyond organising for a delegation in 2005. It is quite clear that the official line of ICTU sits uncomfortably with many members own views. There is a need to build a proper campaign involving those people rather than the ad hoc coordinating that is being done by Lasc at the moment, most of which falls on a small number of people.

Whilst the TCD and UCD students have voted to support the boycott, Coke continues to be sold on campus and there is a lack of a campaign across the student body. The student union national conference will take place in March. The students should build for this conference and get the students throughout the country to campaign on the issue. Winning referenda is not the end of the campaign – it should be the beginning. We need to get out beyond the campuses and the union branches that have to date supported the boycott. If we are to prevent slippage on this issue we need a campaigning group that goes beyond counting up partial victories but one which builds upon those victories in an organised manner. Though the boycott campaign has to date had some success in Ireland we still lack a structured campaign rather than the loose coordinating of individual actions that we currently have. These actions are admirable and they show that we have the potential for much more.

The campaign can be contacted at 01 6760435.


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