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The Coca-Cola Campaigns 1980-1985
1. Occupation

One Saturday in February 1984~ when workers came in for the morning shift at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Guatemala City, they found copies of the following letter from the company:
Embotelladora Guatemalteca, S.A.
24 Calle 6-01, Zona 11 - Tels: 762228/30, 762669 Y 762678 Cables: EGUAT,
Apartado Postal 161 - Guatemala, C.A.
To: AlI employees of Embotelladora Guatemalteca, Sociedad Anonima (Guatemalan Bottling Company Limited)

We regret to have to inform you that your contract of work is hereby terminated with effect from today, owing to the complete closure of this plant.

Unfortunately, our financial situation makes it impossible for us to continue production, and we are therefore, most reluctantly, obliged to bring your employment to an end.

It is our firm intention to make good to you any indemnity payments owing, as we have explained to your trade union representatives, and this will be done under the supervision of the Inspector of Labour.

We thank you sincerely for your cooperation during the time we have worked together in our company.

The only warning of the bankruptcy and loss of jobs had come at 9pm the previous evening. The company owner, Antonio Zash, arrived with the plant manager and a group of security guards and met the committee of STEGAC, the trade union at the plant.

'They came in,' explained Rodolfo Robles, general secretary of STEGAC, 'and without more ado informed us that as of that moment the company was closing down. We couldn't believe it, because whichever way you look at it, this is a profitable business. They told us that as far as they were concerned we could demand an audit or take it to court or do what we liked, but we wouldn't get anywhere.'

Throughout Friday night the STEGAC executive discussed what to do. Urgent messages were sent to other trade unions and to the International Union of Food and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) in Geneva, to which STEGAC was affiliated. When the morning shift arrived, an assembly of the workers was hastily arranged. The momentous decision was taken to occupy the plant.

The climate of terror

The Coca-Cola workers knew only too weil the dangers they were facing. In February 1984, Guatemala was still under direct military rule. The coup led by General Mejia Victores in August the previous year had brought a new wave of repression in Guatemala City. Trade unionists were favourite targets for kidnapping and assassination by the security forces and death squads, while mass raids and army patrols created a climate of terror on the streets. ln February alone, 47 people were assassinated and 106 kidnapped and disappeared. Three leading members of the CNT, the union federation to which STEGAC belonged, had recently been kidnapped, and one of them killed. Why were the Coca-Cola workers, and their union, STEGAC, willing to risk so much by occupying their plant?

ln one sense the Coca-Cola workers had little choice. If they lost their jobs, they would stand virtually no chance of being employed elsewhere. Anyone who had worked at the Coke plant was likely to be blacklisted by CACIF, the employers' organisation.

But it was not just STEGAC's future that was at stake. The Coke workers knew themselves to be in the forefront of the fight for basic trade union rights in Guatemala. The outcome of this battle, as STEGAC leader Rodolfo Robles explained, would have a profound influence on the whole future of trade unionism in the country:

'The Coca-Cola workers' trade union is a vital component of the trade union movement in Guatemala. By closing down this plant, the employers were automatically destroying the union. A few months later, we reckoned, they would be using the same procedure to close down other factories where there are trade unions.'

Despite the danger there were important factors working in STEGAC's favour. For some months the Coke workers had been expecting a move against their union or its leaders and preparing to confront it. They also had one of the strongest and most militant unions in Guatemala, and enjoyed the backing of the rest of the trade union movement. Above ail, they could count on a vast network of support throughout the world. To understand why this was so, we need to go back to the beginning of the Coca-Cola workers' struggle, more than a decade earlier.

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