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“Sailing round the world in a dirty gondola,” Bob Dylan sang in 1971, “Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!” After forty years of corporate globalization, Dylan would be hard pressed to find a place that isn’t the land of Coca-Cola. Multinationals have torn up the globe converting the repression of workers into cheap labor and free trade agreements into new market opportunities all in the name of ever-increasing profit margins. Left in their wake are legacies of environmental destruction, corrupt governments and employer violence. This process is precisely what a documentary currently making the rounds in campus political circles, by German Gutierrez and Carmen Garcia’s entitled “The Cola-Case,” aims to expose.
The film documents the multi-year campaign waged in support of unionized Coca-Cola workers at bottling plants in Colombia. These workers face the near constant threat of violence from paramilitary forces contracted by Coke’s Latin American bottler, Coca-Cola Femsa, who have murdered several leaders of the SINALTRAINAL union. As a result of this repression, a genuinely transnational coalition composed of SINALTRAINAL, professional activist campaigner Ray Rogers and North American labor attorneys is formed around the “Killer Coke” campaign.
The union attempts to maintain its position inside of the bottling plants while shuttling between street campaigning in Colombia and speaking tours across North America. Ray Rogers develops an effective public relations campaign that proves capable of mobilizing activists on college campuses throughout the United States in support of the Colombian trade unionists. Simultaneously, the attorneys, backed by the financial muscle of the United Steel Workers and the International Human Rights Fund, attempt to exploit an obscure US tort law that allows foreign nationals to pursue claims against US-based companies.
The strength of the film lies in its ability to present the subtle tensions that exist within this tenuous coalition. Rogers seems to be waging a one-man war against Coca-Cola in the boardrooms and university lecture halls of the US and Canada. The lawyers are plowing along with the legal cases always looking for the opportunity to secure a negotiated settlement that offers even an incremental victory. The SINALTRAINAL have other ideas. They are not, chief negotiator Edgar Paez relates, just negotiating against Coca-Cola, but, instead, “We are negotiating against US politics. We are fighting the neoliberal model.”
Things come to a head in a scene in a hotel room somewhere in the US where the Colombian trade unionists warn Rogers that they “will not accept that people make money on us as victims.” Meanwhile, human rights attorney Dave Kovalik has created a legal opportunity for the campaign. Through painstaking negotiations, Kovalik has secured an offer from Coca-Cola to compensate the murdered Colombian workers. However, Coke demands that the current workers who are bringing the suit leave the plant and that the company does not have to issue an admission of guilt. Representatives from SINALTRAINAL ultimately reject this offer, demanding that Coke publicly admit its complicity in the murders. The film ends with a despondent Kovalik roaming the streets of Bogotá searching for some kernel of utility in his multi-year crusade.
There are some truly masterful moments in the “Coca-Cola Case.” The footage from Latin America, including an inspiring short piece from Guatemala, provide the most compelling moments of the film. Interviews with two young Coke distributors in Colombia that compare their conditions to those of the company’s CEO in the US, brings home the stark inequalities produced by capitalist globalization. This puts a human face on the suffering created in the name of increased profitability.
The North American segments are far weaker. Most revolve around court strategies being developed Kovalik and other attorneys. His personal struggles are offered to viewers, but it is difficult to make a connection similar to the one available with trade unionists operating under threat of death in Colombia. Equally distant is the campaign being waged by Rogers. Early segments of the film feel like an infomercial for his company Corporate Campaign Inc. and do not do real justice to a university campus campaign that claimed some significant victories. The later, above-mentioned, critical comments from the trade union leaders stand as a necessary corrective.
How can regular people tame the corporate beasts laying waste to global living standards? The “Coca-Cola Case” certainly has something to offer viewers who are interested in such questions. Overall, this documentary stands as both an excellent primer on globalization and, for some viewers, a first-look into the violence and bravery that typifies trade-union struggles in the Global South.
BILLY WHARTON is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be contacted at whartonbilly(at)gmail.com