Ex Coca-Cola Workers in Venezuela Blockade Factories After Pay Negotiations Stall

Nearly 5,000 former Coca-Cola workers in Venezuela have blockaded 23 bottling facilities since last Tuesday to demand compensation for having been laid off when the Mexican firm FEMSA took over the Venezuelan operations from Panamco in 2003.
Ex-Coca Cola workers block the entrance to a bottling plant in Mérida (James Suggett)

Mérida, October 6, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com)– Nearly 5,000 former Coca-Cola workers in Venezuela have blockaded 23 bottling facilities since last Tuesday to demand compensation for having been laid off when the Mexican firm FEMSA took over the Venezuelan operations from Panamco in 2003.

The negotiations that had been mediated by the Venezuelan Labor Ministry since June stalled in August when Coca-Cola retracted its previous offers and left the table, according to national labor organizer Marcela Máspero, an ally of the ex workers.  

Máspero suspects that Coca-Cola withdrew from the negotiations in retaliation for the nationalization of the Mexican cement firm CEMEX earlier this year, for which the government paid a lower amount of indemnity than CEMEX wanted.

A national coordinator of the ex workers, Alí Morillo, told Venezuelanalysis.com in an interview, “The negotiations with the Labor Ministry have been positive, they have opened their doors, called us, offered their services to us,” but he said the current blockade is necessary because no resolution has been reached.

Coca-Cola had offered to create a $10 million fund to pay for academic scholarships, medical bills, and small business grants for the ex-workers. The workers had rejected the offer, saying Coca-Cola owes a total of $242 million to 11,633 workers who were laid off during the ownership switch.

“We want the owners of Coca-Cola to put their hands on their hearts and think about what they really owe us, ” said Morillo. “They have deceived us and made fun of us repeatedly, and even called us coup mongers, when the truth is the contrary.”

Despite past threats by the National Assembly to nationalize Coca-Cola, Morillo said the ex-workers are not asking for nationalization. “Instead of expropriation, it is better that they pay us and conduct honest business,” said Morrillo.

FEMSA says it has no responsibility for the ex workers’ grievances because they were never on the FEMSA payroll, and it has regional court orders confirming this.

Despite worker claims that their constitutional rights have been violated, Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) upheld the court orders last June. Máspero said such respect for “bourgeois laws,” is a sign that “the tentacles of the transnational [Coca-Cola] have reached all levels” of the Venezuelan government.

“There are only two positions: one in favor of the transnational and the other in favor of social justice,” said Máspero last week.

To support the workers, Máspero and two National Assembly deputies, Iris Varela and Reinaldo García, formed a special committee and sent a telegram to government entities nation-wide soliciting respect for the blockades.

Despite this, Morillo says mercenary strikebreakers and National Guard troops assaulted the ex workers in the city of Maracaibo last week, and the National Guard teamed up with the local police in Valencia to evict the workers and allow factory operations to be renewed.

In two other cities, the local police have teamed up with current employees of Coca-Cola, to create disturbances in public areas and blame them on the ex-workers, even though the ex-workers have only blockaded the bottling plants, according to Máspero.

Some current workers have expressed fear that the drop in productivity caused by the blockades will threaten their jobs. One current worker, Lurais Gracian, explained, “we are not defending the company, we are defending our source of employment. If [the ex workers] are right, they should go to the courts.”

However, many current workers cannot express their support for the ex-workers because they fear reprisal from the company, said Hugo Gutiérrez, a leader of the 99 ex-workers in the city of Mérida.

“The person who is not in line with the company is fired, so they cannot give us the open support we would like,” said Gutiérrez in an interview with Venezuelanalysis.com.

The ex-workers in Mérida sent a letter to the current workers saying, “We are conscious of the inconvenience that we have caused you and it worries us to shut down the source of work that sustains your families, but we are sure that you too will collect the fruits of our struggle.”

Commenting on the letter, Gutiérrez said that if the rights of the ex-workers were acknowledged, this would strengthen the position of the active workers.

“Times are changing, the world has changed… in the past, our lack of unity and knowledge of our rights allowed the transnationals to do whatever they wanted with the workers, but now the workers have more knowledge and we are taking the reins,” Gutiérrez affirmed.

According to Gutiérrez, the local government in Mérida has allowed the blockades to proceed but has made no further efforts to assist the former Coca-Cola workers.

The ex-workers have blockaded Coca-Cola plants on three previous occasions in the past two years, costing the company $55 million, according to Coca-Cola spokesperson Rodrigo Anzola. Anzola said last week that the company has no plans to return to the negotiating table. The Labor Ministry has yet to make public declarations on the matter.