APRIL 1984 - VOLUME 5 - NUMBER 4
In Guatemala, Things Go Worse With Coke
by Jonathan Fried
For the second time in four years, Guatemalan employees of CocaCola are locked in a bitter struggle for trade union rights.
On February 17, the union at the CocaCola franchise in Guatemala City was informed that Embotelladoro Guatemalteca S.A. (EGSA), as the franchise is called, had closed due to financial insolvency. The union decided to peacefully occupy the plant; 460 workers have been there since that time. The workers' action took many observers by surprise, since it comes at a time when heavy government repression has silenced, destroyed, or forced underground virtually all union organizing in Guatemala, while the country is in a state oft war.
The shutdown of the Coca-Cola plant comes several years after workers won a victory of international significance by forcing Coca-Cola, through the pressure of an international boycott, to intervene in a dispute over trade union rights for which the company had denied responsibility. At stake in the current dispute are the gains of that struggle: recognition by a multinational corporation of its responsibility to respect trade union rights in a Third World country, and the survival of the EGSA union.
Contacted by telephone at the occupied plant, union general secretary Rodolfo Robles told this reporter that the closing of the franchise is "repressive and illegal." Millions of dollars were siphoned off from the company's accounts by the EGSA management, he charged, and workers were not given previous notice of the shutdown as required by Guatemalan law. The union is calling on the CocaCola Company to step in and reopen the plant, while another international campaign against Coca-Cola may soon be declared.
The margin for dissent in Guatemala, according to Frank LaRue, a Guatemalan labor lawyer and prominent opposition figure who now lives in exile in Washington, D.C., "has been narrowed to zero." Current head of state General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, who came to power in an August 1983 coup, is eliminating "whatever minor space that was left," he said. Army repression in the countryside continues unabated, while death squads have picked up their activities in urban areas with the embattled trade union movement as one of their targets. A February 23 statement from Guatemala's National Committee "for Trade Union Unity reported that 14 union leaders and labor lawyers had been kidnapped or killed by government forces since November of last year. Several of these unionists were killed during the month of February.
The bitter conflict at the EGSA plant from 1975 through 1980 was a landmark case in Guatemalan labor history. The EGSA union was in the forefront of a fiercely militant labor movement that was being badly hit by government repression, particularly during the rule of General Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-1982). A dozen Coca-Cola workers, including three who were or had been union general secretaries, were killed in a union-busting campaign led by EGSA owner-manager John C. Trotter, a Texas businessman, and carried out with the aid and complicity of the government's security forces.
A well-organized international campaign, including work stoppages, slowdowns, and boycotts of Coca-Cola products, was organized by the Genevabased International Union of Food and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF), an international federation of unions that negotiated with Coca-Cola on behalf of the EGSA union. The campaign and the workers' persistence in the face of kidnappings and assassinations forced the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola parent company to intervene in the EGSA situation in July 1980, when they agreed to finance the purchase of the franchise from its U.S. owners by a Mexico-based consortium, which then negotiated a contract with the EGSA union.
At the time, Coca-Cola came under heavy corporate criticism for caving in to details of that campaign have yet to be announced.
The Coke workers' courage has struck a responsive chord among trade unionists and Guatemala City residents, who have been virtually immobilized by continuing political violence. Representatives from several other Guatemalan labor unions have visited the EGSA plant to pledge their support for the workers. Food and money have been donated by students, city residents, and campesinos despite general economic deprivation and an unemployment rate that has topped 40 percent. But sickness is widespread among the occupying workers and the union is hard-pressed to pay huge overdue utility j bills in order to continue the occupation.
The Guatemalan government has so far I acted with uncharacteristic restraint. Security forces are keeping an eye on the plant, Robles said, but they are allowing people to enter and leave at will. LaRue believes that Coca-Cola has asked the , government not to apply force at this time because it would cause an "international ' scandal." Gallin suggests the government's restraint may be related to the millions of dollars in U.S. economic and military aid to Guatemala requested by the Reagan administration and now pending in Congress.
But given the occupation's possible repercussions inside the country, the regime's patience may not be unlimited. There are unconfirmed reports that several union leaders occupying the plant have recently received death threats. The Ministry of Labor has removed itself from the scene, claiming there is little more it can do if Coca-Cola refuses to negotiate.
Despite the harsh conditions and the threat of a government crackdown, spirits remain high among the 460 occupying workers. "What we are asking of the international community is to be in solidarity with us," Robles said. "If possible, send some kind of material aid. .. and pressure Atlanta to respond to our call."
"We are going to resist as long as is necessary," the union leader said. "If that means that there are deaths here in the plant, well, so it shall be." C
Jonathan Fried is co-editor of Guatemala in Rebellion: Unfinished History (Grove Press, 1983).
Telegrams from individuals and organizations urging Coca-Cola to reopen the EGSA plant and holding the corporation responsible for any future violence there should be sent to: The Coca-Cola Company, Mr. Roberto C. Goizueta, Chairman, P.O. Drawer 1734, Atlanta, GA 30301; telex: WUD 0542373. Monetary contributions for the EGSA workers can be sent to: National Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, 930 F St. N. W., Suite 720, Washington, D. C. 20004.