Refreshing Pauses, Coca Cola and
Human Rights in Guatemala

by Henry J. Frundt
Praeger, 1987
Reviewed by William Jackson

This book describes the struggle of a small labor union-in-the- making at a franchised Coca Cola bottling plant in Guatemala-- highlighting a multinational corporation's relationship to a repressive and autocratic American franchise owner, his plant and its employees. Coke Atlanta, as the headquarters of this corporate giant is referred to, would have it otherwise. Much of the book revolves around the efforts of the parent company to avoid responsibility for what it claims are the autonomous acts of an independent franchise operation. Events, however, made the activities of this "independent" franchiser a worldwide labor and human relations issue and an acute embarrassment to Coca Cola officials. The story, as told by Professor Henry Frundt, is replete with dramatic elements--violence, assassination, human suffering and official manipulations. It also reflects the courage and sacrifice of many individual workers at Embotelladora Guatemalteca S.A. (EGSA), who attempted to turn a page in the history of labor-management relations in Guatemala, and, to a surprising degree, Latin America as a whole. This effort, documented by the author, is marked by great sacrifices, including the assassination of many union leaders. In the end, it was partially successful in achieving union recognition and a contract that protects individual workers from human rights abuses.

In detailing confrontations between management and workers at EGSA, the author makes us appreciate the tenuous nature of employee job security, welfare and even life in Guatemala. The reader confronts the array of legal and illegal forces employed by the owner and management in an effort to stifle the expression of worker demands and the creation of a legal union. The evidence collected by the author consists largely of first hand accounts and interviews with participants. Ultimately, the parent company is brought reluctantly into the local labor union struggle by strong international pressure on Coca-Cola operations worldwide exerted by the International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF) and its affiliates and internally by churches owning Coca-Cola stock.

Even while accepting the weight of the evidence the author marshals in making his case, a careful reader must also note that the author's perspective in this book is not neutral or dispassionate. Statements from company officials are interpreted through the eyes of the workers' union, known by its Spanish acronym STEGAC. Frundt suggests that class struggle is a major part of this union's struggle, but the evidence needs to be more focused and more conclusive. There is a certain ambiguity among union leaders in this account as to whether they perceived the struggle as primarily a class struggle rather than a labor- management struggle. The author might well argue that in Guatemala the two overlap.

One theme that emerges from this book is a sense of the fragility of a small Latin American state and its slow emergence from a patriarchal, semi-feudal society. Such a state is especially vulnerable to outside pressures and manipulation, such as the U.S.-directed overthrow of the democratically- elected Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954 and the virtual elimination of the trade union movement in that country. Refreshing Pauses, in addition to providing evidence that human rights progress of a sort can come through organization, also makes the case that it does not take much to tip the legal and political scales in Guatemala when an unscrupulous franchise owner pulls all the levers of power.

This book is an important resource on the dynamics of a multinational operation and its contribution to the history of human rights in Latin America.

William Jackson is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.