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Colombian Workers, Civil Rights, Advertising

Commercials before movies are not popular. A quiet collective sigh fills the just-darkened theater each time the screen comes to life not with the film or even a preview but with an ad. We shake our heads or curse mildly or shrug.

Another incursion. Another flawless conquest: smoothly executed, apparently final, unchallenged. A ritual moment (a movie’s beginning) with genuine magic–not an un-commercial moment before, obviously; but, also obviously, much more than commercial–located, claimed, divided up, sold off. Another fragment of cultural commons seized.

The unspoken, shared glee of that moment–the lights-out partial release from our selves’ strictures; the preparations for transport, enthrallment–makes it precious. Profitable. Such magic is prime real estate.

An even more precious slice of psychic terrain is collective inspiration–hopefulness and courage and action, a sense of community, a sense of that community’s strength. Memories and representations of the civil rights movement seem to hold that force more powerfully than anything else in our national culture.

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The violation, then, was at least double when I took my seat in a darkening theater last Friday night.

The image: a black woman, smiling and joyous, walks down a city street, singing. Her voice is gorgeous. “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,” she sings–and her obvious joy, her booming voice, her proud walk convey that she does know. She must know, or how could she be so happy? She knows how it feels to be free.

Her song was a civil rights movement anthem. Jazz titan Dr. Billy Taylor wrote it in 1954 and Nina Simone popularized it on a 1967 recording. It became a protest song, a hymn for marching.

In the commercial that played before last Friday’s film, the woman strutting and belting this song exchanges smiles with passersby. They all look exuberant, enchanted. As she walks, she hands each of them a bottle of Coca-Cola.

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To be fair, I should admit that I’ve only described the first fifteen seconds or so of the ad. She keeps signing that beautiful song throughout it, but I can’t say I know what happens, visually, toward the end. I was buckled over in my chair, sobbing, rocking back and forth to keep from screaming in rage.

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Last Friday, the day I went to see the movie, 30 workers at Coke bottling facilities were on hunger strike in eight Colombian cities. It was day twelve.

Two days before, on March 24, day ten, SINALTRAINAL (National Food Industry Workers Union: the union representing Coke workers) reported that many of the hunger strikers–who continued to work their normal shifts, collapsing at the union’s tents outside the bottling facilities after work–were experiencing dizziness, depression, headaches, sleeplessness and chest pain. One hunger striker, Marco Tulio Rey, suffered a minor heart attack on the fourth day. Another, Ruben Dario Munoz Joya, was checked into a hospital for severe dehydration. Union leaders reported receiving multiple death threats since the strike began.

But they’ve seen worse.

Paramilitary death squads have murdered nine members of SINALTRAINAL over the last few years. Isidro Segundo Gil was killed inside the Carepa bottling facility where he worked. Paramilitaries have issued death threats to at least 65 SINALTRAINAL members.

Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. No one knows the exact number, but around 1,500 Colombian unionists have been killed in just the last ten years. And impunity is practically law. According to a U.S. State Department report, no one has been convicted for any of the nearly 400 murders of Colombian trade unionists in 2001 and 2002.

SINALTRAINAL unionists have been kidnapped and tortured as well. Others have been jailed on false charges. Last September masked paramilitaries kidnapped the 15-year-old son of a SINALTRAINAL leader, demanding he tell them where to find his father. Union leaders say their employer–Panamerican Beverages, a bottling company recently bought out by FEMSA, a Mexico-based firm whose major shareholder is Coca-Cola–ordered many of the attacks, some of which took place inside the bottling facilities.

When New York City City Council Member Hiram Monserrate led a fact-finding delegation to Colombia in January, Coca-Cola representatives told the group that its employees may in fact have collaborated with paramilitaries in the murders and torture, according to a February In These Times article. Monserrate reported: “With respect to Coca-Cola, not one person has been prosecuted or convicted for any of these murders. Not one person has been prosecuted or convicted for any of the countless kidnappings that have occurred. Not one person has been prosecuted or convicted for any of the beatings that have occurred on-site [at bottling plants] or at people’s homes, which are directly connected to their employment at Coca-Cola.”

On March 2, a few days before SINALTRAINAL started the hunger strike, four heavily armed men raided the union’s office in Baranquilla, a city on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. Along with money and equipment, the men took the security camera’s video cassette. The raid came just a few weeks after the New York delegation of unionists and students visited the Baranquilla office, and just one day after the company and union began a new collective bargaining process in the capital, Bogota. A Baranquilla office leader, Adolfo de Jesus Munera Lopez, was assassinated by paramilitaries on August 31, 2002.

Constant and brutal persecution has not succeeded, however: the union has not been silenced. In July 2003, SINALTRAINAL called for an international boycott of all Coke products. Organizations around the world–trade unions, churches, student groups, human rights organizations, politicians–have supported them by writing letters to Coca-Cola and the Colombian government, holding educational events to promote the boycott, protesting outside Coca-Cola facilities, and–most importantly, in terms of pressuring the company–convincing universities and other institutions to refrain from signing contracts with Coke. In addition, the United Steelworkers of America and International Labor Rights Fund have provided SINALTRAINAL invaluable support, filing a joint suit against Panamerican Beverages and Coca-Cola in a Miami U.S. District Court in 2001 for allegedly hiring paramilitaries to kill unionists.

And now a thirty-person hunger strike, in eight cities.

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What I didn’t know, sitting in the theater last Friday, wrestling with a terrible dissonance, was that all the solidarity efforts had paid off. Supporters abroad and in Colombia had flooded Coca-Cola and FEMSA with letters and phone calls since the hunger strike began on March 15, demanding that FEMSA negotiate to transfer unionists who lost their jobs when the company closed 11 bottling facilities last year. The union says FEMSA pressured 500 workers to resign in exchange for a severance payment, even though the workers were entitled by both Colombian law and a clause in their contract to transfer in the event of plant closure. Juan Carlos Galvis, a SINALTRAINAL leader in the oil refining city of Barrancabermeja, explained the reason for their fierce defense of the right to a transfer: “If we lose this fight against Coca-Cola, first we will lose our union, then our jobs, and then our lives.”

That same day, March 26, SINALTRAINAL reached an unprecedented agreement with Juan Carlos Jaramillo, Coca-Cola’s representative in Colombia. The company agreed to transfer 91 union members slated for layoff, lift all penalties that had been imposed on participants in the hunger strike, provide hunger strikers with two weeks of paid vacation to recuperate, and publish an advertisement in a national newspaper discouraging paramilitary reprisals against the union.

In a statement announcing the agreement and the hunger strike’s end, SINALTRAINAL leaders wrote, “Twelve days of hunger strike had to pass, and the participants had to experience all the physical and mental rigors of fasting, for the company to finally agree to start a dialogue and listen to its workers. It took twelve days of sacrifice and paramilitary threats for the workers to be heard.” They went on to note that it also took a tremendous amount of international pressure on Coca-Cola–and that “the problems that led to this protest have not been resolved. All that has happened is the start of a dialogue, a process that could lead to their resolution. Today, more than ever, we must be strong and united; and all those who have accompanied us in dignity, firmness, and love of our cause must continue doing so, to ensure the workers a just and swift resolution.”

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A pair of paramilitary gunmen put ten bullets in Isidro Segundo Gil on December 5, 1996, after driving into the Carepa plant on a motorcycle. That night, the building housing the union’s office went up in flames. Paramilitaries returned a few days later to demand workers resign from the union. Naturally, everyone complied. Some fled; those who remained were fired two months later.

Paramilitaries murdered Gil’s wife Alcira in 2000, after she protested Coca-Cola’s role in her husband’s death.

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I wish I knew how it would feel to be free

I wish I could break all the chains holding me

I wish I could say all the things that I should say

Say ’em loud, say ’em clear

For the whole round world to hear

That’s what she sings, strutting, handing out bottles of Coke. You know, it’s funny: in November 2000, Coca-Cola paid $192.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by 2,000 of its African-American employees for discrimination in pay and promotions. Other, similar lawsuits are pending. Coca-Cola delivery drivers in Dallas told National Public Radio in June 2002 that the company regularly stocks stores in black and Latino neighborhoods with post-expiration date (flat) soft drinks.

Coke’s 401(k)-holding employees lost over $71 million in 2002. The previous year, the company paid CEO Douglas Daft $105,186,544, including stock options.

I’m sure the bad press from these events doesn’t have anything to do with the current advertising strategy.

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When SINALTRAINAL President Luis Javier Correa Suarez traveled to Mumbai, India for the January 2004 World Social Forum, he learned that three Indian towns lack drinking water and have had their fields turned into deserts due to Coca-Cola’s exploitation of groundwater and pollution of what little water remains. A protest movement in India has opposed Coke’s actions.

In response, Coca-Cola India hired Perfect Relations, a p.r. firm, to improve its image. Now the company trucks drinking water into the communities that lost drinking water sources or had them polluted by Coke’s activities–providing no cleanup of the damages or compensation for the loss. In keeping with the worst excesses documented by PR Watch, Coke is even telling farmers that live near its Kerala plant “Toxic Sludge is Good For You!”–giving the stuff away as fertilizer. A BBC-commissioned study found high levels of lead and cadmium in the sludge.

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Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky

How sweet it would be if I found I could fly

Oh I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea

And I’d sing ’cause I’d know –

I’d know how it feels to be free

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Some memories, some histories–like the recollection of millions marching, singing, courageous, aware of their own power; millions defying racism and injustice–are, quite simply, sacred.

Their power is why marketers covet them, naturally. And even if we first responded with outrage, I think most of us have grown accustomed to such ads–ads that not only exploit the power of an event or symbol or memory for profit, but in the process actually deplete that power. They take the event’s (or symbol’s or memory’s) felt meaning away from us, bit by bit; they confuse it. They confuse us.

We get branded.

But it’s important that we remember what else gets lost in this exploitation of what we hold dear, in this invigoration of a fetish: awareness of conditions of production. What’s behind the Wizard’s curtain?

In some cases, including that of Colombia’s food and beverage workers, “the real thing” turns out to be not just poverty or injustice but outright murder.

PHILLIP CRYAN is a freelance writer. His biweekly Colombia Week column focuses on media coverage of the country’s conflict. He lives in Ames, Iowa, and can be reached at phillipcryan000@yahoo.com.

 

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