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29 May 2003 Edition

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Trade unions fight back in Colombia

At 8.30am on 5 December 1996, a right-wing paramilitary squad of the Colombian United Self Defences - Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), showed up at the gate of the Coke bottling plant in Carepa. Isidro Segundo Gil, a member of the union SINATRAINAL executive board, went to see what they wanted. The paramilitaries opened fire on Gil and he dropped to the ground, fatally wounded. An hour after he was assassinated, paramilitary forces kidnapped another leader of the union at his home; however, he managed to escape and fled to Bogotá. At 8pm, another paramilitary group broke into the union's offices, destroyed the equipment there, and burned down the entire house, destroying all the union's records.

The next day, the same heavily armed group went inside the bottling plant, called the workers together, and gave them until 4pm to resign from the union. "They said that if they didn't resign, the same thing that happened to Gil would happen to them: they would be killed," recalls trade unionist Edgar Paéz. Not surprisingly, union members resigned en masse. A number of workers also quit their jobs outright, undoubtedly fearing that they would be killed simply for showing up.

Gil's is not an isolated case in Colombia, where Coca-Cola and other transnational and national companies are using rightwing mercenary paramilitary groups to force workers into submission. In 1994, two other Coca-Cola union activists, José Davíd and Luís Granado, were murdered in Carepa, and at that time as well, paramilitaries demanded that workers quit the union. In 1989, unionist José Avelino Chicano was killed in Coca-Cola's Pasto plant. This year, again during negotiations, a union leader at the Bucaramanga plant, Oscar Dario Soto Polo, was murdered. When the union denounced the killings, the plant's chief of security charged its leaders with terrorism and rebellion. Five were arrested and jailed for six months, then released. "In Colombia, the trade unions' struggle is a struggle for life," explains María Ermelina Mosquera, an executive member of the Colombian trade union SINATRAINAL.

The companies, meanwhile, disclaim all responsibility. Coca-Cola spokesperson Rafael Fernández asserts that Coke has a code of conduct requiring respect for human rights. Coke's Colombia spokesperson, Pablo Largacha, insists that "bottlers in Colombia are completely independent of the Coca-Cola Company". The bottler, Bebidas y Alimentos, says it had no way to stop the paramilitaries from doing whatever they wanted. "You don't use them, they use you," owner Kirby told a reporter. "Nobody tells the paramilitaries what to do."

During a subsequent investigation by the Colombian Justice Ministry, the plant's director and production manager were detained, along with a local paramilitary leader. All three were later released, with no charges filed against them.

After the dead of Gil, the company abandoned ongoing negotiations with the union. Twenty-seven workers in 12 departments left the plant and the area. All the workers had to quit the union to save their lives, and the union was completely destroyed. For two months, the paramilitaries camped just outside the plant gate and Coca-Cola never complained to the authorities. The experienced workers who left the plant, who'd been earning between $380 and $400 a month, were replaced by new employees at minimum wage - $130 a month. "In the last five years, Coca-Cola has replaced 10,000 contract workers for temporary staff contracted through agencies," states Ermelina.

In November 2002, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labour Rights Fund (ILRF) decided to take the case of Gil to the American courts and present a lawsuit against Coca-Cola in its home country, the US. On 31 March, a Florida court decided that the lawsuit presented against two bottling plants of Coca-Cola in Colombia Coca-Cola Panamerican Beverages (Panamco) and Bebidas y Alimentos (Bebidas) in Colombia, could progress. Lawyers for the families expressed their satisfaction with the judgment of Florida judge José E. Martinez, though they will appeal the judge's decision to exonerate Coca-Cola itself.

As María Ermelina Mosquera explains: "it cannot be said that Coca Cola is directly involved in the shooting, but the company is accomplice with those companies in getting the workers killed." The suit charges that plant manager Ariosto Milán Mosquera told the workers that "he had given an order to the paramilitaries to carry out the task of destroying the union." Workers believed him because he had a history of partying with the paramilitaries.

The level of violence against Colombian trade unionists is staggering: according to Héctor Fajardo, general secretary of the United Confederation of Workers (CUT), Colombia's largest union federation, 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986. In the year 2000, three out of every five trade unionists killed in the world were Colombian, according to a recent report by the United Steelworkers.

Trade unionists and human rights activists hold Colombia's right-wing paramilitary forces responsible for almost all the trade-union assassinations - though those forces aren't working simply for themselves. Robin Kirk, who monitors abuses in Colombia for Human Rights Watch, says that there are strong ties between the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the nation's leading paramilitary grouping, and the Colombian military. "The Colombian military and intelligence apparatus has been virulently anticommunist since the 1950s," she says, "and they look at trade unionists as subversives - as a very real and potential threat." The AUC is also quietly backed by elements of the nation's business and economic elite.

The Colombian government's answer has been the criminalisation of trade unionists -who have been imprisoned for their union activities under charges of rebellion and lately of terrorism. The government views union activity as a threat because it challenges its basic economic policies. The Colombian administration is under intense pressure from the International Monetary Fund to cut its public-sector budget, in part through privatising public services. Union leaders who oppose privatisation have also been targeted. After leading a fight to maintain public service in the city of Calí, Carlos Elíecer Prado, a public-sector union leader, was murdered in May.

SINATRAINAL is calling for an international solidarity campaign involving a boycott of all Coca-Cola products, condemnation of the violence against trade unionists and Coca-Cola workers in Colombia and the creation of an international body to observe the activities of multinational companies and investigate possible human rights violations. They are seeking support from trade unionists around the world to put an end to the killing and harassment of their colleges in Colombia.

International labour cooperation, the unions believe, is the only means left to them to counter the power of the corporations that they think are the instigators and beneficiaries of the repression.

Democracy denied in Basque Country

The democratic deficit in the Basque Country reached new heights during the Spanish local and provincial elections, which took place despite the banning of the 225 lists of candidates presented by the Basque nationalist left.

However, for Spanish and Conservative Basque politicians, these elections were "ordinary". They found nothing irregular in the violation of the rights of expression, political representation and association of the people they claim to represent. So, when Basques went to vote on Sunday 25 May, 168,431 of them felt alienated, as they were not allowed to vote for the political party they wanted by the Spanish courts in collusion with the Spanish government.

Although some independent candidates have been voted in as councillors and mayors, the State ensured that there is practically no institutional representation of the Basque pro-independence movement on town councils, provincial parliaments, and the Parliament of Navarre. Only 100 councillors out of the more than 600 that would have been elected will be able to take their seats on the town councils.

The citizens in six Basque towns could not vote, as the only political grouping contesting the elections had been banned. In 17 villages, the number of votes obtained by the banned candidates were more numerous than the candidate declared to have won the election. In another 31, the vote will be repeated as no candidates ran for election.

So, for 168,431 Basques, election day was a day of protest, as they tried to vote for the pro-independence Basque left using banned ballot papers, while suffering police harassment.

An Phoblacht
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