(Guatemala City)-On February 17, 460 workers from Embotelladora Guatemalteca, the U.S. Coca-Cola franchise in Guatemala took over the bottling factory as it was being closed by the owners for "bankruptcy." The workers demanded that the plant re-open, change managers and that the activities of death squads responsible for the murder of union leaders and activists cease.
The takeover came after years of antiunion violence. Marion Mendizabal, a 22 year old union leader cut down by machine gun fire in front of the plant in 1980, was one of three secretary generals of the bottlers union assassinated in the 18 months between December 1978 and May 1980.
During that period, three other members of the unions executive committee were also murdered, two of them were brutally tortured.
The attitude of the Government can be summed up by a remark on March 3rd, 1984, by Guatemalan President, General Oscar Mejia Victores: "I think the violence is fine. It is folkloric in our country, as all countries have their violence in one form or another. Sometimes there is a little, sometimes it decreases or increases," General Victores told the Financial Times of London.
Although the company had yearly sales of $10 to 12 million, on Feb. 16th it closed its doors declaring bankruptcy. The next day the workers occupied the plant in order to guard the machinery and protect the premises, declaring their intention to stay in the plant until production is resumed.
Bad Books and Bankruptcy
The workers of Embotelladora Guatemalteca want Coca-Cola to change the managers of the franchise on the basis of their discovery of two sets of books, one actual, the other forged. These books show that large sums of money were siphoned off by the company management.
Declaring bankruptcy has recently become a favorite union-busting tactic in the United States. While corporations here have to go through a period of dealing with public outrage, outside the U.S. and especially in Guatemala a quick phone call to the death squads would usually silence any popular outcry.
Management at the bottling plant prior to the takeover was directed by a reactionary Houston attorney, John Clinton Trotter, acting he said for a wealthy Houston widow, Mary Hodge Fleming. Trotter had close ties with the Guatemalan Chief-of-Police, German Chupina, who had been directly linked to death squad activities. Trotter maintained armed guards on top of the walls surrounding the plant who shot more often at workers inside than intruders outside, with one union leader gunned down on company property.
Concerning the union, Trotter told Newsweek, "Theyre communist theyre part of a ruthless worldwide communist campaign against big companies like Coca-Cola." In 1979 Trotter blamed the union problems on the owners of a local Pepsi Cola franchise who he called "agitators."
In 1975 Trotter had offered union leaders a $50,000 bribe warning that he would give the money to the government, "to suppress us if we did not accept it." Trotter dismissed these charges as "Unfounded." Coca-Colonialism
For many people in the 135 countries where it is sold, Coke symbolizes U.S. influence. Vietnam veterans and others remember during that war that even if you couldnt get drinking water out in the jungle, there was always a warm Coke nearby.
The company, whose after-tax income was $558 million on $6.8 billion in worldwide revenues, is part of the Rockefeller wing of the Trilateral Commission.
In 1980, however, an international boycott was launched in 1980 by the International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF), to which the Guatemalan bottlers belong. The international boycott featured a four-day consumer boycott in Sweden and a three-day work stoppage by Swedish Coke bottlers.
As a result of the boycott, Coca-Cola agreed to deal with the union. Police were removed from the plant and it was sold to a consortium of Mexican and Central American investors. Coca-Cola continues to control the use of their name, a registered trademark whose use it can revoke at any time. That power gives the company ultimate control over all franchises.
Lock-Out and Occupation
On February 27th H.T. Circuit, head of Coca-Colas Latin America Dept. agreed to meet with union representatives after an urgent request by the Guatemalan Ministry of Labor through the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. Circuit then backed down and agreed only to receive "a representative of the Ministry of Labor and the persons accompanying him." At the meeting Circuit said that he had no control over an "independent" franchise but that Coca-Cola would be happy to re-establish the franchise if the union could come up with a new investor who would pay $14 million. (Maybe the IUF could find the money?) Negotiations broke down leaving the plant under worker occupation. According to the IUF, "The tactic is stonewalling, the objective to destroy the union in Guatemala and the credibility of the IUF."
According to IUF editor Jim Wilson, who visited from March 5 to 10 with a U.S. film crew, "The plant is an unarmed fortress under a state of siege in an undeclared war. Occasionally a tanqueta, a small tank, lumbers by. Some nights noisy army trucks set up quasi- roadblocks which stop passing vehicles at random. If a selected driver fails to notice their signal, soldiers hidden a block further down shoot. Its a grim variation on the traffic speed trap concept.
"Even from the outside the besieged fortress image is vivid. The large plant and its storage yard are enclosed with a high cinderblock wall prickling on top with broken I liter coke bottles embedded in cement. Above that is a barbed wire fence. Four large banners stretch across the front of the complex condemning Coca-Cola and explaining the workers position. On the walls and on the terrace in front of the plant workers patrol round the clock. In the distance, at least in the mornings when it is clear, a circle of smoke from one or more volcanoes can be seen "
Morale among the occupying workers is high. When asked how long they can remained holed up they respond simply, "For months, many months." Their days are taken up by various activities such as literacy classes.
The biggest single activity surrounds the gathering and preparing of food. The union has had to spend little of its meager financial resources on food. Most of the food comes from the workers relatives in the countryside or from the surviving Guatemalan unions.
The workers have proceeded with caution due to the brutality of the Guatemalan government. Since 1980 over 30,000 Guatemalans have been murdered by government forces. Gen. Mejia Victores has consolidated the "strategic hamlet" campaign instituted by his deposed predecessor, Rios-Mont, seeking to isolate the guerillas completely by keeping most of the population under lock and key.
In 1980 the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) was formed from all the political and guerilla groups opposing the Guatemalan government, rapidly expanding armed resistance, sending the Reagan administration scrambling to abrogate guidelines set by the Carter administration banning military sales to Guatemala (even while Carters cronies from Coca-Cola were turning a deaf ear to the killings at their own plant).
In 1981 23 Bell helicopters were sold to the Guatemalan government. These helicopters were supposedly sold for civilian, not military uses but are now being used as gun ships. The Reagan administration is about to sell Guatemala spare parts for these helicopters.
Embotelladora Guatemalteca is still. being occupied, the only thing standing between the workers and the Guatemalan military is the international support they have received. The IUF is planning to announce an international boycott of Coke in Europe and the United States if Coca-Cola refuses to negotiate. Urgent action is requested by-the union. Telegrams should be sent to: Mr. H.T. Circuit/Latin American Dept. Coca Cola Corp./310 North Ave. N.W./Atlanta Ga. 30313 (404-676- 5964).