«4. The next round 1984 - 1985 | Main | 6. Endgame »

The Coca-Cola Campaigns 1980-1985
5. The Unarmed Fortress

The Coke workers took the decision to occupy the plant on 18 February 1984. A quick response from the IUF was essential if they were to survive and succeed. Within two weeks the federation had written to all affiliates calling for protests to Coke Atlanta. Jim Wilson, the IUF's journal editor, was dispatched to Guatemala City. On his return he wrote:

'The EGSA plant is an unarmed fortress under a state of siege in an undeclared war. Though most of the time no uniformed military or police are visible around the plant, the threat of intervention at any moment is the main concern. But the visible signs are scary enough. Occasionally a tanqueta, a small tank, lumbers by. Some nights noisy army trucks packed with jittery teenage soldiers roll up in front of the plant and set up quasi-roadblocks which stop passing vehicles at random. On the night of 2 March, near the main factory gate, on almost the exact spot where EGSA union general secretary Marlon Mendizábal was machine-gunned to death in May 1980, these soldiers shot and killed one passing driver, and injured his two passengers. The last night we were there we witnessed soldiers firing five volleys at a car. No-one was injured. The tires simply exploded with a lot of noise and bullets ricocheted around the front walls and glass windows of the plant. '

Some workers' families were threatened. According to one young worker, 'the day after they announced the closure of the plant, the anonymous phone calls began. They would ask my wife where I was, or ask to speak to her. They were trying to put the frighteners on us.'

Despite the renewed repression in the cities, this was not 1980. Although they maintained their presence in nearby streets, the security forces did not invade the EGSA plant. There was no John Trotter to urge them on: Zash and Méndez had left the country immediately after the closure and played no further part in the dispute. Both Coke Atlanta - the real owners of the plant - and the military government had their own reasons for urging restraint.

Coke Atlanta had learned its lesson three years earlier and was anxious that there be no new martyrs to fuel international campaigns of boycott and solidarity. It probably hoped too, that in the absence of direct repression the occupation would soon wither away. ln particular, the company was keen to settle the dispute before the 1984 Olympic Games, of which it was a major sponsor.

The Mejia government was faced with mounting economic difficulties and therefore badly in need of foreign aid and loans - and a better image. As part of this exercise, elections for a Constituent Assembly had been called for July 1984. Killing or disappearing Coke workers would be guaranteed to bring more bad publicity. A certain political space was therefore opening up which provided a measure of protection for the Coca-Cola workers, to which they themselves contributed by the example of their struggle.

Argument and counter-argument

On the third day of the occupation STEGAC took its case to the labour tribunals, presenting evidence that the company had broken both labour and commercial law by its sudden declaration of bankruptcy. The Ministry of Labour gave considerable support to the workers' arguments. The following week a meeting took place in Atlanta between representatives of Coca-Cola, STEGAC, Enrique Torres (the former STEGAC lawyer), the IUF and the Guatemalan Ministry of Labour. Although Coca-Cola attempted to exclude the IUF from the meeting, the company was effectively forced to talk to the international federation. Thus, within the first week, the dispute had become fully international.

In a telex to the IUF dated 21 February, Coke had claimed:

'The Company is not one of the shareholders in EGSA, although we are one of the many creditors. It is our assessment that there are various key reasons for the present financial insolvency of EGSA. These include: (1) a serious contraction of the entire soft drink market over the past three years; (2) excessive labor costs without available remedy; (3) serious undercapitalisation from its inception; (4) poor management; and (5) the overburden of the enormous debt.'

These arguments were, to say the least, hypocritical. Overwhelmingly the largest creditor was of course Coca-Cola Atlanta, and the corporation had itself arranged the initial capitalisation and the debt burden of EGSA, and was supposed to retain a continuing role in the management of the plant. The claims of a 'serious contraction' in the soft drink market were absurd, as the Financial Times noted at the time, while talk of 'excessive labour costs' was a thinly-veiled attempt to throw the blame on the union. STEGAC and the IUF refused to accept that the bankruptcy was genuine, arguing that the plant was commercially viable, and that it should be kept open and the jobs protected. Coke Atlanta was effectively the owner of the plant, and had agreed in 1980 to maintain a management role for five years.

The IUF was aware that this time the tactics would be different. They concluded:

'It is impossible to imagine that the company embarked on this course without taking a possible IUF reaction into account. We must therefore assume that it believes that either the IUF is not any longer in a position to meet such a challenge, or else that the company can prevail in an international confrontation. We therefore must prepare for a longer and harder struggle than we conducted in 1980.'

Keeping occupied

When the occupation began, 460 people, almost the entire Coca-Cola workforce, joined in. In the first few weeks up to 200 were inside the plant at any one time. The ten members of the STEGAC executive committee were there permanently aware that their lives would be in danger the moment they set foot outside. They realised that they might have to be there for many months. IUF's Jim Wilson described life in the plant:

'Morale is very high. This is emphasised by the organised and disciplined nature of life inside. The big event of the day is one or more general assemblies when present union secretary general Rodolfo Robles or other officers give updates on events talks with ministry officials, a new ad in the newspaper, new plans for helping those whose families are in the most precarious straits - and so on. Next, visiting unionists are introduced. After this, the day's telegrams of support are read amid much enthusiasm and cheering. Then the microphone is given to any worker who wishes to speak. Invariably this eventually turns to long reminiscences of those who fell in the 1979-80 campaign and exhortations that their deaths not now be allowed to have been in vain. The hundreds present stand attentive and silent. Then one or more members may come up to sing and to play the guitar. At the end aIl participate in several stanzas of the rousing STEGAC union song.

The rest of the day is taken up in numerous activities. Literacy classes for the sizeable minority who never went to school. Sometimes there are entertainments like a mock beauty pageant. There are ten soccer teams. Volleyball, jogging and dominoes are participated in more informally. Even singing and guitar classes have been set up. Every day a sympathetic priest comes in from the outside to say mass before a makeshift altar surrounded by high stacks of Coca-Cola crates. We attended one such service and heard a fervent worker in prayer who raised bath hands and shouted, "Glory hallelujah, praise Jehovah and may He bless the IUF."

But most activities have more immediate and practical purposes. On a regular schedule, the entire plant is swept clean and trash burned. Machinery and the scores of idle trucks are inspected. There are often statements to be written, leaflets to be run off, and attempts (usually unsuccessful) to break through to the local media.'

Gradually, however, financial pressures began to appear, and the true nature of the 'siege' became dearer. On 8 March an advertisement appeared in the Guatemalan press inviting EGSA employees ta go to the Metropolitan Bank, with proof of identity, to receive their redundancy pay. STEGAC replied in an advertisement the following day:

'We emphatically deny that EGSA is closed. What is taking place is an illegallockout by the owners. While the company is under summons to appear before the Labour Tribunals, no worker can be legally dismissed. The redundancy pay offered in an advertisement appearing in one moming paper is merely another attempt to destroy the unit y of the workforce.'

A few of the workers, mainly office staff, accepted redundancy pay. The amounts on offer (from US$2,000 ta US$4,000) were very large by Guatemalan standards, certainly more than enough to tempt the fainthearted. Some families were facing mounting debts and risked eviction from their homes for rent arrears. The special pensions for the widows and orphans of the previous dispute, established as part of the 1980 settlement, had stopped with the closure. Some workers had loans that had been underwritten by the company, and these were now called in. STEGAC set up a welfare commission to help those families in greatest need. The plant cafeteria (built after 1980 and dedicated to the memory of Pedro Quevedo, the union's first general secretary) provided at least one good meal a day and this was extremely important in maintaining morale.

Meanwhile, the telephone, electricity and water were in danger of being eut off because of unpaid bills. By 20 May, 58 workers had accepted redundancy pay and the union's funds were exhausted. Nevertheless, morale remained good, sustained by the fine example of the STEGAC executive, who se members remained in the plant 24 hours a day, and by the discipline of the commissions and activities organised by the union.

Outside help

The occupation at EGSA was both a reflection of the new mood of determination in the trade union movement and a major stimulus to it. This in part explains why so much help in cash and kind flowed into the EGSA plant every day. As IUF's Jim Wilson described:

'While we were there, we saw provisions come in from other food plants, a sugar mill, chemical and textile factories, a laundry workers' union, bank employees and a number of other organisations. One delegation of a banana workers' union arrived after a 300-kilometer joumey over rough dirt roads through mountains and jungle. Another day, a truck appeared with dozens of eggs - a gift of the semiclandestine Democratie Socialist Party of Guatemala. '

Now help began to flow also from abroad, as IUF affiliates aIl over the world started to send
in cash. From 25 to 28 March a delegation of US food industry trade unionists visited Guatemela, bringing with them US$8,000 to add to the US$4,000 already sent by the IUE The money was used to buy food and to support families in need. ln early Maya delegation from Canada brought further aid.

The IUF followed its first circular on 5 March by establishing a solidarity fund, and asking affiliates to make representations to local Coca-Cola plant managements in their own countries as weIl as to Atlanta. It also asked affiliates to 'prepare for a boycott of Coca-Cola products, wherever appropriate in cooperation with community groups, solidarity and action groups, etc, and to prepare for selective action against production and distribution of Coca-Cola products'. By 3 April, messages of support for STEGAC had arrived from Belgium, Bermuda, Brazil, Cyprus, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Panama, Switzerland, Uruguay, USA and Venezuela and the UK (see box below).

UK Solidarity

Trade unions in Britain took part in the first IUF boycott campaign in support of the Coke workers in 1980. The TGWU, General and Municipal Workers (GMWU) and ASTMS all made representations to management at Coca-Cola plants in Britain. The TGWU and the Tobacco Workers Union sent protests to the Guatemalan government. USDAW workers held a meeting about Guatemala at the Belfast Coke bottling plant in May. G&MWU held information meetings at distribution and bottling plants. TGWU threatened a full production stoppage. A strong resolution in support of the Guatemalan workers was also passed at the 1980 TUC Conference.

In 1984 these actions went further. Within a month of the occupation starting, TGWU had sent cab les of support to STEGAC and of protest to Coca-Cola and the Guatemalan authorities. Shop stewards at Coke bottling plants in northern England, Scotland and Wales sent similar messages. Other messages of protest were sent by ASTMS, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers, USDAW, Tobacco Workers and the United Road Transport Workers' Union. The TGWU held several meetings with European representatives of the Coca-Cola Corporation and hounded them with frequent letters and telexes right up to the time of the settlement in February 1985.

IUF affiliates in Britain sent contributions to the IUF's solidarity fund, based on a levy of just over 3p per member; the video 'The Real Thing' was shown to Coke workers and to the general public; and the Greater London Council (GLC) stopped buying Coca-Cola for its restaurants, bars and cafeterias; and the development agency, War on Want, sent ;(2,000 to the families of the Coca Cola workers. Letters of support were also sent from solidarity and human rights groups. A British human rights worker who visited the Coke plant in October 1984 was shown the country files of letters received by STEGAC. 'In our darkest hours,' explained one official, 'we just take out these letters and read them to each other to keep up our morale.'

In May, the IUF reported another US$21,000 in donations received, the main contributions coming from Norway and West Germany, but this had already been distributed to STEGAC families for food. More was needed. Members of theatre and film technicians unions in the US gave their services free ta make a film about the occupation (The Real Thing) which was later shown to hundreds of solidarity meetings in many countries. Production stoppages of Coca-Cola were now being planned in Australia, Norway and Sweden.

Coke responds

Coke Atlanta reacted to the increasing pressure by sending groups of senior managers to talk to the main organisations involved - with the exception of the IUE Company spokesmen explained that for reasons of 'principle' they did not want to speak to the IUE First, they went to see the religious shareholders of the ICCR, who had remained in touch with STEGAC ever since 1978, and who had once again intervened at the corporation AGM. Shortly afterwards Coke delegations visited the Norwegian, Swedish, German, Belgian and Dutch affiliates of the IUE On 7 May, at the congress· of the Danish Food Workers Union in Copenhagen, the Coca-Cola executives found themselves confronting Dan Gallin and other IUF leaders, invited by the Danes.

By now, the company had changed its position. It was no longer arguing that Coca-Cola production was non-viable in Guatemala City. Instead the spokesmen claimed that the plant would be re-opened as soon as a suitable buyer could be found, and that the existing workforce would be rehired and the union recognised. In the meantime, the US$1.8 million fund deposited in a Guatemalan bank was not for redundancy payments but for interim wage payments to EGSA workers until the plant re-opened; it was due to the urging of the company that the Guatemalan government had used 'utmost restraint' .

The IUF was suspicious:

'At just about the same stage of the campaign in 1980 the company was contacting our affiliates saying that a solution was imminent. ln reality such assertions served the sole purpose of demobilising and slowing down solidarity action. There was no genuine response from the company until it realised that it could not prevent solidarity action except by settling. The IUF Executive committee has asked all affiliated unions for solidarity action "with all means at their disposal and to the full extent of all legal possibilities". This means production stoppages, stopping transport, distribution and sale of Coca-Cola products, boycotts, consumer information campaigns, negative publicity or any combination of these. Do not delay any solidarity action you may have been considering. The right time is now.'

--> Endgame