Bruininks must answer for Coca-Criminals

The University must be a responsible world citizen.

Adri Mehra

You can’t beat the real thing, and in Coca-Cola’s case, that includes a tangled web of apparent lies, intimidation and murder that would make the management of Guantanamo Bay sob with tears of joy and envy.

The Coca-Cola Company, based in Atlanta, is one of the largest companies in the United States, and it has become this by selling its high-fructose syrup to bottlers, restaurants and other franchises in nearly every country around the world, all of whom add filtered water and sweeteners to the finished product.

However, in Latin America, Coca-Cola has been linked to a series of mysterious murders of union-affiliated employees in an ongoing scandal going back more than 30 years.

In 1975, workers at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Guatemala initiated their first successful attempt to organize a union. They simply wanted better working conditions, an end to 12-hour shifts, and a 42-cent raise to $2.50 an hour.

Almost immediately, John Trotter, Coca-Cola’s franchise president in Guatemala City, started hiring workers at a whopping $3.00 if they agreed not to join the new ad hoc union.

According to a 1987 book (“Refreshing Pauses: Coca-Cola and Human Rights in Guatemala”) by Professor Henry J. Frundt of Ramapo College in New Jersey, Mr. Trotter personally believed that unions were a symptom of Communism, and they had to be crushed at all costs.

After Trotter split the Guatemala bottler into 13 legally separate paper companies – making it nearly impossible for collective bargaining – the workers staged a sit-in at the plant, but Trotter “trotted in” the military police, who proceeded to beat several of the workers unconscious for their peaceful protest.

When Trotter tried to fire 150 of his workers the next day, he had to reinstate them shortly after, for such an unsupported mass termination violated even Guatemala’s meager labor laws.

The country’s media covered the event, and Coca-Cola quickly became the logo for the labor movement, as well as the figurehead for the violent oppression of civilians under decades of military and corporation-friendly rule.

By the end of the next year, a group of Coca-Cola shareholders who happened to belong to the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in the United States filed a resolution at the annual stockholders’ meeting demanding that Coca-Cola investigate their Guatemala franchise.

Following their “investigation,” Coca-Cola “accepted at face value Trotter’s denials that he underpaid, intimidated, and abused his workers, concluding that the situation did not justify the termination of the bottler’s agreement,” according to Dalia Al-Othman of Harvard Law School in 2001.

Two years later, Israel Marquez, the secretary general of the Guatemalan Coca-Cola plant’s union, narrowly survived a machine gun attack during his drive home from work.

However, on Dec. 12, 1978, Pedro Quevedo, the union’s financial secretary, was not so lucky, as he was murdered while making deliveries in his Coca-Cola truck.

“In Guatemala, murder is called ‘Coca-Cola’,” Marquez told stockholders in a riveting speech at the Coca-Cola Company’s annual meeting in May 1979, concluding with another simple plea for minimal labor standards at his bottling plant.

As a result of all of this negative publicity, Coca-Cola’s national sales plummeted, and Trotter – who had assured Guatemala’s national police chief in 1978 that the union would be destroyed in six months – was not brought back by Coca-Cola after his contract expired in 1981.

You’d think Coca-Cola would have learned from this awful human-rights experience, especially considering the heat they received from Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of State, and the consumer boycotts that occurred around the world.

You’d be wrong.

In Colombia, the national trade union of food industry workers – known as SINALTRAINAL – has long alleged that Panamco, a Colombian Coca-Cola bottler, has assisted paramilitaries in hiring thugs to assassinate several union leaders.

In July 2001, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola in a Miami district court after five union workers from the plant in Carepa, Colombia were killed between April 1994 and December 1996.

Although the claims were dismissed by the court in September 2006 – it’s hard to prove corporate fingerprints where there is police and government collusion, after all -the international boycotts of Coca-Cola have raged on in the pursuit of justice and the truth.

In December 2005, New York University and the University of Michigan banned all Coca-Cola products from their campuses, following Rutgers, Oberlin, Bard and Minnesota’s own Carleton College in the removal of the company’s bloody stain.

Coca-Cola has proven time and again that it opposes or ignores fair labor practices in Latin America, and many communities near the company’s bottling plants in India are experiencing severe water shortages and chemical contaminations of groundwater and soil.

It is far past time for University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks to address these issues with Coca-Cola, as our school has the largest remaining campus contract with the corporation.

The question is, does he have the guts to face these concerns?

Why don’t we ask him?

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]