What do the University of Montana and anti-union, paramilitary Colombian thugs have in common? They both do business with Coca-Cola.
On Wednesday, Sept. 25, longtime Missoula human rights activist Scott Nicholson delivered a slide show and lecture on working conditions in areas of Colombia that he recently visited. Nicholson stated he believes that Colombian union leaders, particularly those affiliated with Coca-Cola bottling plants, are being subjected to violence, intimidation and torture in order to discourage union activity.
Nicholson’s allegations turned heads inside UM’s North Underground Urey Lecture Hall, particularly in light of the University’s recent signing of an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola.
“Since 1990, eight leaders of the Coca-Cola workers union have been killed,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson accompanied this statement with a slide showing a banner hanging in front of a Coca-Cola bottling factory in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, reading, “The largest violators of human rights are in this business and they carry out labor massacres against the Colombian people.”
Coca-Cola Director of Corporate Communications Sonya Soutus insists that Coca-Cola has no role in the violence: “All of the allegations that are being made by the activists or that are being made by the unions we deny vehemently… We work with hundreds of unions throughout Latin America and Colombia and we have a code of business conduct that we follow, so it’s very difficult for me to believe that there would be any sort of restrictions on union activity.” But Coca-Cola takes no significant steps to protect union leaders from paramilitary violence, counters Nicholson. The activist notes a 2002 International Federation of Free Trade Unions survey stating that 223 union leaders were killed or disappeared in 2001. More than 90 percent of the killing and kidnapping of union leaders occurred in Colombia, according to the survey, and Nicholson says that some of these union leaders were from Coca-Cola plants.
Nicholson ended his recent presentation by calling on students to contact Sen. Max Baucus and ask him to vote against sending more money to the Colombian government until it does a better job protecting union leaders.
Nicholson and several of the students who attended the lecture voiced their discontent over the University of Montana’s exclusive seven-year, $4.2 million contract with Coca-Cola.
Bob Deringer, the University’s vice president for administration and finance, says UM President George Dennison was not aware of any alleged human rights violations when he signed the contract with Coca-Cola.
At a peace rally on Oct. 28, Nicholson encouraged students and Missoulians to boycott Coca-Cola until paramilitary violence subsided.
Deringer says that, even if a boycott were to occur, the University would not stand to lose any money.
“The contract is not dependent upon consumption,” Deringer says.