Mark Thomas does not refer to TUC and UK trade union solidarity with Colombia in general, but points out the specific case of their lack of solidarity over the issue of SINALTRAINAL's struggle against Coca Cola. The TUC and the British Trade Union movement in general have done much to be proud of in terms of their solidarity with comrades in Colombia, and much more than their trade union comrades in other parts of Europe.
Over the last few years either via the Colombia Solidarity Campaign, LASOC, the Colombia Peace Association or more recently Justice for Colombia there has been a whole range of very positive activities ranging from the tremendous solidarity and support for the SINTRAEMCALI occupation in defence of public services in Cali in 2001 to the whole series of reciprocal delegations between the UK and Colombia, to the TUC's support of the motion to call for a Special Commission of Inquiry by the ILO, to the respite scheme for threatened Colombian activists, and to the range of solidarity projects and support that now take place between the UK and Colombia.
The split over the boycott of Coca Cola arises because official British Trade Union support of the boycott comes too close to home and if implemented could potentially affect British jobs and British interests, and it appears that at this stage in the TUC's development of a movement of solidarity with Colombia it is not prepared to take that leap.
The boycott of Coke products was called by the World Social Forum to start for one year from 22nd July 2003. It came about because Coca Cola had taken no action to stop the murder of eight SINALTRAINAL members and the campaign of threats, attacks and kidnappings of family members of trade unionists.
The union has made clear its conditions for lifting the boycott call. They are that Coca Cola:
1) Mitigates the pain of the victims by making integrated reparations that include compensation for the damages caused.
2) Publicly recognises that it benefited from the crimes committed by paramilitary groups continually carried out against the human rights of the workers and the communities.
3) Commits itself to not making any new attacks on our people, and that it hands over to justice those criminals who carried out actions to its benefit.
4) That the corporation negotiates with the union a code of conduct to safeguard workers' lives in the presence of international observers.
The argument that British workers jobs may be affected is probably spurious, since as soon the boycott became enough to dent sales and profits Coke would be under big pressure to settle.
Nonetheless, this is an example of where national trade union interest conflicts with internationalist trade union principles. There is a long history of this that spans the Cold War divide between the ICFTU, the major capitalist world trade union federation and the WFTU which represented the Communist bloc. Many have suggested that the end of the Cold War is heralding a new era of Trade Union Internationalism with new possibilities for cross border solidarity.
However, apart from a Cold War divide, there has also been historically a North/South divide, which hasn't gone away, and if anything has been heightened by neoliberal globalisation.Capitalism is experienced very differently according to one's position not only in our national class structure, but also our location within that North/South divide. The agents of neoliberal globalisation, G7 states and their multinational corporations, ally with local elites in the South, and while workers in both the South and the North are exploited, the severity of that experience remains quite different. While we might get victimised for being trade unionists, we don't get murdered. While we might lose our jobs we have a social welfare system that can at least pick up some of the pieces. In Colombia that is not the case. The difference lies in the amount of crumbs that fall from the bosses table in the North and the South, and this is where imperialism needs to be brought into the equation.
The desperate situation of capital/labour relations in Colombia means that trade union leaders' responses to that crisis are going to be very different, and at times appear extreme to trade unionists in the UK. Coca Cola workers affiliated to SINALTRAINAL are in such an extreme situation, and have chosen the weapon of the International boycott, and now the hunger strike, as a last resort. It is a measure of our internationalism to also consider making a small sacrifice in support of our trade union comrades.
SINALTRAINAL's objective in the hunger strike is not to destroy Coca Cola but to pressure them into negotiation so that mass sackings stop. If trade union leaders and the TUC are not prepared to support the boycott then they could show their solidarity in other ways. Assist with legal fees, make high level intervention to Coca Cola in the UK and Colombia, raise awareness amongst their workers and carry out different solidarity activities. At present the TUC and Justice for Colombia, because they cannot take the plunge to support the boycott have instead just completely ignored it.
That is why Mark Thomas took the step to ask "Whose side are you on", it may not be a popular step, but our comrades are going to die on hunger strike if enough pressure is not applied to Coca Cola - this is an urgent situation, and requires an immediate response.
Colombia Solidarity Campaign
Mark Thomas article in New Statesman 27 March 2004:
Coca Cola is rapidly becoming synonymous with the kind of inept rip offs
that Rodney and Del Trotter could only dream of. Flogging tap water,
Dasani, in a bottle is an act of cynical and surreal genius matched only
by the CEO Douglas Daft?s vision that one day people will be able to turn
on the tap marked C at the sink and fresh Coke will pour out of it. So in
Coke?s world of the future tap water comes in bottles and Coke comes out
of the tap. Just how stoned do you have to be to think up this stuff! Most
people would have to consume a good bag of quality skunk before they start
rambling ? Right we?ll have Coke coming out of the tap, drinking yoghurt
out the bidet and the sofa?will be made of nan bread.?
Not content with that Coke then manage the miraculous task of turning
decent tap water in Dasani into a cancer scare. Marketing can?t be said to
be Coke?s strong point. There now are smokers in pubs claiming the moral
high ground, ?I won?t touch that Dasani it?s bloody dangerous, ? they
rasp, ? should carry a health warning. If I had my way I?d make Dasani
drinkers stand on the office front steps if they wanted to drink it at
In many ways the Dasani fiasco is the least of Coke?s crimes that
activists and trade unionists should be turning their attention to. On
the 15th of March in Colombia 30 Coca Cola workers went on hunger strike
outside 8 Coke bottling plants. At this point I want you to accept one
basic fact; hunger strike is not a negotiating tool often used in the
trade union movement, it is the tool of last resort and a symbol of their
desperation. If you can?t accept this stop reading now and head straight
for the Tesco food voucher competition.
Colombia has a bloody history of paramilitaries murdering trade unionists,
often in collusion with the armed forces. Coca Cola?s
Colombian bottlers* now face legal action in the US under the Alien Tort
Claims Act, accused collaborating or hiring paramilitaries to murder,
torture kidnap and disappear Coca Cola workers and trade unionists. Eight
Coke trade unionists have been killed, Isidro Segundo Gil was killed
inside a Coke plant and his wife who campaigned for justice was murdered
by the paramilitaries.
Now the bottlers have suddenly sacked 91 workers from the plants, 70% are
union organisers, Sinaltrainal (The Colombian Food and Drinks Workers
Union) say that this is to ?essentially eliminate the union?. One trade
unionist said ?If we lose against Coca Cola, we will first lose our union,
next our jobs and then our lives.? In a country that has seen over 3,000
trade unionists murdered since 1987 it is not hard to see how people come
to this conclusion.
Just over a week into the protest and strikers are already being
threatened by the paramilitary AUC, Autodefensas Undidas de Colombia, who
issued a statement to ? declare war on the individuals that we have
already identified as the leaders of the organisation.They must leave?or
they will become a military target and we will finish them off. ANTI
SUBVERSIVE JUSTICE WILL CARRY OUT JUSTICE.?
The President of Sinaltrainal , Luis Javier Correa Suarez, takes this
threat seriously. He should do, there have been two assassination attempts
on his life and an attempt to kidnap members of his family. Luis Javier is
40 something, dressed smartly in the way working class men with a modest
wage do and looks more like a branch official than a president. Not a man
to sit on the side lines he is one of the hunger strikers.
It is hard to imagine a British trade union president or general secretary
going on hunger strike. The only thing that would put some of them off
their food is the prospect of the membership coming out on strike. Which
would leave many choking on their chocolate
bourbons/canapés (delete where applicable).
Of course there are notable exceptions of internationalism from the
Scottish Fire Brigade Union to London Unison. Generally though the trade
union movement, the people that should be automatically supporting Luis
Javier and the other hunger strikers, are conspicuous by their silence.
And the silence could be deadly.
Will Luis Javier be just another name on a leaflet? Just another on the
growing list of 3,000 dead trade unionists? Without international support
it is highly likely he will. The upper echelons of the TUCmight not like
Luis Javier?s call for an international boycott of Coca Cola, as it upsets
the New Labour/business pact. But this is life or death. It is time once
again to ask the trade union leadership, ?whose side are you on??