The contracts have been cut, but for student activists at the University, the fight is far from over.
It has been nearly a month since the University suspended its contracts with the Coca-Cola Company, but some students are not yet satisfied – a fact that was apparent at a presentation by the Campaign to Cut the Contracts with Coca-Cola at the Michigan Theater last night.
“The students of this campaign stand in solidarity with the workers in Colombia,” said RC senior Clara Hardie, a coalition member. “We will not stop until they tell us to stop.”
The student activist campaign is part of a two-sided initiative aimed at producing reforms from Coke, which has been accused of human rights violations in Asia and South America.
Terry Collingsworth, an attorney representing Colombian union workers who have filed a lawsuit against a Coca-Cola bottling company, is leading the other side of the attack. He spoke yesterday at the presentation.
Collingsworth’s clients are members of SINALTRAINAL, the third-largest union in Colombia.
Collingsworth’s clients have accused the two primary Colombian bottling companies with which Coca-Cola does business of employing paramilitaries to break up unions.
One of the primary examples of the paramilitary activity the clients claim the company condones is the murder of a union leader named Isidro Gil.
Gil, who worked as a guard at a Coke bottling plant, was murdered by members of the paramilitary group AUC inside the bottling plant in 1996. Luis Adelfo, one of Collingsworth’s clients and a member of SINALTRAINAL, witnessed the murder of his friend and co-worker.
Adelfo, who has spoken at the University on two occasions, said that Gil was warned by AUC that his involvement with the Union put him at risk.
The U.S. government has listed AUC as a terrorist organization. As a result, any aid to AUC would be considered a felony offense. Despite Collingsworth’s efforts to bring this issue to the attention of the Bush administration, he said, it has not pursued any legal action against the company.
The political situation in Colombia is extremely volatile. Two major groups, both funded by drug trafficking money, leftist guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries, compete for political dominance.
Coca-Cola spokesman Pablo Largacha said the company was not responsible for the actions of the paramilitary groups and had no involvement in the murder. Collingsworth said while the company argues in court that it can’t control the paramilitaries, it simultaneously guarantees universities across the country that it upholds human rights standards everywhere it does business.
“Coca-Cola needs to take responsibility for the practices of companies it chooses to do business with,” Collingsworth said. “If they asked (the bottlers) to make everyone at the plant wear pink polka-dot shirts, you better believe they would do it. Our goal is to make the company put that power to a positive use.”
The most recent example of conflict between the company and organized labor comes from Turkey, where 110 union members were fired.
Kari Bjorhus, a spokeswoman for the company, said that the workers were fired for “performance reasons.”
In a letter to Ed Potter, director of Global Labor Relations for Coca-Cola, Collingsworth questioned the motives behind the company’s actions.
“What an amazing coincidence!” he wrote. “All of the 110 workers who joined a union, many of whom had been with the company for years and had consistently received positive evaluations, suddenly had a collective failure of performance.”
Since being fired, the workers have received two years worth of back pay, but have not been rehired. Collingsworth said this is unacceptable because it sends the message to employees that workers who join a union could be fired.
Collingsworth has a list of seven demands that are required to resolve SINALTRAINAL’s case against the company, including a statement publicly denouncing anti-union violence and a human-rights policy that applies to all the bottling plants with which Coke conducts business in Colombia.
Lindsey Rogers, a campaign member who helped organize the event, said she was pleased with the way it turned out.
“We wanted to address people’s questions about the issue, and provide more information about the lawsuit and issues in Colombia,” Rogers said. “I think people got a lot out of it.”
– Michael Coulter contributed to this report