The Multinational Monitor


G L O B A L   N E W S W A T C H

Coke Workers Boycott South African Bottler

Coca-Cola once again finds itself facing a potential international boycott due to the labor policies of one of its bottling plants in the Third World.

In 1980, the International Union of Food and Allied Workers led a successful worldwide boycott against Coke after management of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Guatemala was implicated in the kidnappings and murder of union organizers (see MM, July 1980).

This time the place is South Africa, and the dispute - though not as serious as the one in Guatemala - already has reached Coke's international headquarters in Atlanta.

In early May, the General Workers Union of South Africa - a fledgling, predominantly black union in Port Elizabeth - declared a boycott of Coca-Cola products in the Port Elizabeth area. The union's action marks the latest development in a protracted labor dispute with the bottler.

Coke workers at the bottling plant went on strike last October over the issues of union recognition and non-discriminatory pay. The union says that the bottler pays higher wages to colored employees working part-time than to the black full-time workers. When the Coke bottler dismissed 250 workers soon after the strike began, tensions between management and the union rose.

The union continued pressuring the bottler, leading the company to agree to rehire the dismissed workers as soon as positions opened. However, in late April, the bottler hired 44 workers - not one was from the group that was dismissed. Shortly thereafter, the union called the boycott.

The International Union of Food & Allied Workers (IUF) endorsed the boycott in mid-May, but has thus far not declared an international boycott against Coke as it did in 1980. Instead, IUF representatives have met with Coke management in Atlanta and are optimistic the dispute will soon be resolved.

"Coke doesn't want anything to happen like in 1980 with the Guatemala situation," says Laurent Enckell, the IUF's North American representative, who met with Coke officials in early June. "They realize the seriousness of the matter." But the IUF is not leaving the resolution of the matter entirely up to Coke, Enckell cautions: "If nothing happens within the next few weeks, then there's a lot of things we can do - including bringing the boycott to the U.S."

Coke management in Atlanta is trying to maintain a low profile in the South African labor dispute. "The bottler fully accepts union principles," says Carlton Curtis, Coke's director of media relations, but the problem is a "local matter between the independent bottler and its workforce." Curtis says that Coke international management has no intention of intervening. "It is inappropriate for us to act," says Curtis, "and we will not."

The boycott's success is difficult to gauge, with the union saying one thing, and Coke another. "The attempted May boycott failed to gain support among the local merchants," says Coke's Curtis. But an article in the Johannesburg Star of May 15 reported a claim by the General Workers Union that the boycott "had received support from township traders in the Port Elizabeth area for the boycott," and that the union had "plans underway to spread the boycott in the near future."

Table of Contents