Despite detailing horrible murders and human rights abuses against Colombian union organizers, the lawsuit was dismissively relegated to a big yawn of 130 words on page 2 of the business section in the July 21 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Most Americans, in the unlikely event they had read of the lawsuit, would dismiss the dispute as just some more Third World nobodies grousing at America.
But then America was sucker-punched two weeks ago, and is still stunned by the awful, evil carnage. Nine days after the assault, President Bush addressed the nation, and referring to the terrorists, asked, "Why do they hate us?" He responded, "They hate our freedoms."
No question, the ultra-radicals with a fascist interpretation of their religion truly do hate America -- for everything it is.
But there's another answer to Bush's question, a much more disturbing one -- one that American leaders and businesses would rather go unsaid. There are many people around the world who despise us -- not for what we are, but for what we've done to them. People like the unionists at Colombia's Coke bottlers.
In Colombia, more than 1,500 labor organizers have been murdered in the last decade -- victims of cold-blooded assassinations that at least indirectly have the United States' imprimatur.
The Colombian murders have been carried out by right-wing paramilitary death squads, often linked to that country's armed forces. About 10,000 of Colombia's troops have been trained at the infamous "School of the Americas" (now called Western Hemisphere Institute) at Fort Benning in Columbus.
Documents the Pentagon was forced to release in 1996 show, according to the Coke lawsuit, "that the U.S. encouraged these troops to engage in torture and murder of those who ... do 'union organizing and recruiting'; pass out 'propaganda in favor of the interests of the workers'; and 'sympathize with demonstrators or strikes.'"
In Colombia, according to the complaint, Coke bottlers allowed paramilitary thugs to enter plants and threaten employees with death if they didn't quit the union. Seven leaders of the union -- called SINALTRAINAL -- have been murdered. Here's how it goes down in Colombia. In November 1996, the union presented one of the Coke bottlers, Bebidas y Alimentos -- which is owned by American Richard Kirby of tony Key Biscayne in Miami -- with its demands for $400 a month, medical benefits and protection from paramilitaries.
Two weeks later, two men came to the plant entrance and asked if the gatekeeper was Isidro Gil, who also was the union's negotiator. When Gil acknowledged his identity, he was shot 10 times and his body left at the gate. The paramilitaries burned the union hall, and two days later called a meeting at the plant to tell workers to quit the union or be killed.
Gil's wife was murdered by the same paramilitaries last year. The couple's two children are orphans.
"Coke is the worst of the worst," says Terry Collingsworth, a Washington lawyer with the International Labor Rights Fund, which represents the unionists. "There is no question that Coke knew about and benefited from the systematic repression of trade union rights."
Coke has argued that the local companies are independently owned. Another plaintiff's attorney, Daniel Kovalik of the United Steelworkers, responds: "The bottling arrangements give Coca-Cola a lot of power. It can dictate product quality, what type of uniforms and logos employees wear. When Coca-Cola Colombia, which is 100 percent owned by Atlanta, was put on notice that a manager at a bottling facility was involved with the paramilitaries, the company did nothing."
Kirby wouldn't return my phone call. His lawyers in Miami refused to comment. Juan Carlos Dominguez, spokesman for Panamco, Coke's largest bottling company in Colombia, says, "We definitively and absolutely reject any malicious accusations." Coke's Colombian spokesman, Pablo Largacha, says the company was "deeply concerned" and aspires to the "highest ethical standards."
Even more timely than the Coke lawsuit was one filed Sept. 11 -- 10 minutes before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., began. About 10,000 Indians in Ecuador claimed they're victims of the United States' "Plan Colombia." A Virginia company, DynCorp Corp. -- ostensibly working for the State Department, although attorneys for the Indians think the outfit is a CIA contractor -- is paid to dump herbicide on Colombian coca, poppy and marijuana crops. But the bombardiers for the poison apparently aren't very good shots, and have sprayed large tracts of neighboring Ecuador, according to the lawsuit.
"Babies have died, people have been sickened, crops and livestock have been killed, and the local economy has been ruined," Collingsworth says.
Among other labor lawsuits targeting U.S. companies:
Another lawsuit is planned, according to Collingsworth. It will charge Drummond Company, based in Montgomery, Ala., of failing to protect workers from terror. Drummond has closed down all but one of its U.S. mines and has laid off 1,700 American workers -- while it expanded into Colombia. Part of the complaint will focus on an incident last March, when the two top leaders of the miners union were hauled off a bus by paramilitaries and murdered.
Key to understanding the violence detailed in these legal actions is globalization. U.S. companies move operations and jobs to developing nations where salaries and benefits are a tiny fraction of paid American workers. However, unions and local citizens who protest the destruction of their homelands pose a threat to the U.S. companies' turbo-charged profits in the Third World.
In this new black-and-white world defined by the post-9-11 United States, that could make these unionists and activists the "enemy." After all, Bush declared last week, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." He didn't clarify if he was lumping together the chaos-embracing bin Ladenistas with people who have legitimate beefs against Uncle Sam -- often involving being victims themselves of "terrorism" backed or quietly condoned by the U.S. government and American companies.
And, for innocent people or countries that oppose our policies -- even if it's because they're tired of being terrorized by, as they see it, America -- does that put them on the wrong side of the President's line? Do they qualify, as Sen. Zell Miller (D-Bombast) put it, for America to "bomb the hell out of them"?
Senior Editor John Sugg, who confesses that he prefers Coke over Pepsi, can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at email@example.com
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