On Dec. 5, 1996, Luis Adolfo Cardona stood by helplessly as Colombian paramilitants murdered his friend, union negotiator Isidro Gil.
“At that time, I just prayed that that would never happen to me,” he said through a translator.
His day had just begun.
Cardona will tell his story at 7:30 p.m. at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. The visit is sponsored by United Steelworkers of America and the University’s Undergraduate Anthropology Club. It’s the latest leg of the Global Justice Tour, which has stopped at college and university campuses from Washington state to Missouri.
The event is intended to increase interest in the union, and promote discussion about the global impact of corporations, organizers said.
Running from death
Cardona, a 46-year-old former union leader, is the event’s featured speaker.
Now working for the union’s Chicago office, he spent his early years earning money for his family in the fields along the Colombia-Panama border.
That’s when a local Coca-Cola subsidiary noticed Cardona’s soccer skills. In 1983, they asked him to play for their company team, and he began a 13-year stint with the beverage industry. At the same time, he got involved with a local union.
The company and union weren’t on friendly terms, Cardona said.
“(The subsidiary) would use the paramilitary to get rid of any union leaders who tried to fight against corporate power,” he said.
Throughout his years at the company, they engaged in rampant union suppression, he said. Cardona said he especially remembers the day Gil was killed. Workers at the plant were waiting to hear whether the company had accepted their new contract.
“We got an answer,” he said. “The paramilitary came into the plant and shot him in front of me.”
Later that day, the paramilitary kidnapped Cardona, but he was able to escape to a police station. That night, he and his family left for Bogota, Colombia. Cardona lived in hiding under union protection until 2002, when he earned political asylum and moved to the United States.
The Coca-Cola Company maintains that it is not involved in Colombian paramilitary activity. An official statement on the company Web site said allegations of their involvement are “a publicity stunt. The allegations are false and it’s outrageous to believe that The Coca-Cola Company would have anything to do with this type of behavior.”
Two Colombian inquiries cleared the company of any wrongdoing, and the company has been dismissed as a plaintiff in the union lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, according to the statement.
The union has appealed that dismissal.
Cardona said Coca-Cola was dismissed because of its influence on the U.S. and Colombian governments.
“Coca-Cola is absolutely involved in the paramilitary. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it,” he said. “The local Coke managers are seen drinking with the paramilitary and giving them gifts.
“Because in Colombia, they drink a lot of rum and Coke.”
At tonight’s forum, leaders will encourage people from all occupations to become associate members of United Steelworkers of America. Unlike traditional union membership, associate membership isn’t dependent upon employment. Rather, it’s about grassroots activism, organizers said.
“It’s redefining the role of unions in our society,” said Josh Syrjamaki, the national coordinator for the union’s Associate Member Program. “You don’t have to have a union at your workplace to be a part of a union.”
It’s important and appropriate for college students to get involved now, since corporate accountability has receded for decades, said Tara Widner, event planner and union staff representative.
“Unions have traditionally been an effective check and balance to corporate exploitation,” she said.
Anthropology Club secretary and treasurer Elizabeth Nadeau said that even without collective bargaining rights, associate members benefit from the union through tapping its extensive knowledge and resources.
“So many people don’t know their workplace rights,” she said. “It’s really helpful to know what we have the right to ask for from our employers.”
Associate membership, which costs $20 a year for students, can also be an outlet for those who seek global justice, she said.
Syrjamaki said tonight’s event is intended as a launching point, not as an end in itself.
Potential action steps include letter-writing campaigns, Coke boycotts and protests, he said.
At Oberlin College in Ohio, students led a successful effort to kick Coca-Cola off campus. And Widner said students at the University of Washington recently contacted her about starting an anti-Coke campaign. Both schools are past tour stops.
University of Minnesota officials said they could not comment on Cardona’s allegations, directing inquiries to the Coca-Cola Company. The company has exclusive soft-drink vending rights at the University of Minnesota.