Monday 29th March 2004
Turning the decent tap water in Dasani into a cancer scare - causing smokers to demand that fellow workers drink it on the office steps - is the least of Coca-Cola's crimes, writes Mark Thomas
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 in a bottle (it's called "Dasani") is an act of cynical and surreal genius. It is matched only by their CEO, Douglas Daft, and his 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.
In Coke's world of the future, tap water will come in bottles and Coke will come from 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'd start rambling: "Right, we'll have Coke coming out of the tap, drinking yoghurt out of the bidet, and the sofa . . . will be made of nan bread."
Not content with that, Coca-Cola then managed the miraculous task of turning the decent tap water in Dasani into a cancer scare.
Marketing can't be said to be Coke's strong point. There are now smokers in pubs claiming the moral high ground. "I won't touch that Dasani. It's bloody dangerous," they rasp, "it 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 work."
In many ways, the Dasani fiasco is the least of Coke's crimes that activists and trade unionists should be concerned about. On 15 March in Colombia, 30 Coca-Cola workers went on hunger strike outside eight Coke bottling plants. At this point I want you to accept one basic fact: hunger strikes are not a negotiating tool often used in the trade union movement; they are the tool of last resort and a sign of these workers' 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 of collaborating or hiring paramilitaries to murder, torture, kidnap and make disappear Coca-Cola workers and trade unionists.
Eight trade unionists who worked for Coke have been killed thus far: Isidro Segundo Gil was killed inside a Coke plant, and his wife, who also campaigned for justice, was murdered by the paramilitaries. Now the bottlers have suddenly sacked 91 workers from the plants: 70 per cent of them are union organisers. Sinaltrainal (Colombia's national union of workers in the food and drinks industry) says this is "essentially to 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 where more than 3,000 trade unionists have been murdered since 1987, it is not hard to see how people come to such conclusions.
Just over a week into the protest, and strikers are already being threatened by the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, which 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. So he should: there have been two attempts on his life and another attempt to kidnap members of his family. Luis Javier is fortysomething, dresses smartly in the way working-class men on a modest wage do, and looks more like a union branch official than a president. Not a man to sit on the sidelines, he has already joined 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 of the biggest bosses choking on their chocolate bourbons/canapes (delete as applicable).
There are notable exceptions of internationalism, from the Scottish Fire Brigades Union to London Unison. But generally, the trade union movement - the very people who should automatically be supporting Luis Javier and the other hunger strikers - are conspicuous by their silence. And their silence could be deadly.
Will Luis Javier Suarez become 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 TUC might not like his call for an international boycott of Coca-Cola, as it upsets the new Labour/big-business pact.
But this is a matter of life or death.
It is time once again to ask Britain's trade union leadership: "Whose side are you on?"