Workers shut down Coca-Cola

"We're showing the world that no multinational company can just come here to humiliate Venezuelan employees", Nixon Lopez, a Venezuelan workers' leader, told BBC News on October 24. Lopez was referring to the actions of over 10,000 former employees at the Coca-Cola Femsa bottling company, the second-largest soft drink bottling company in the world.

The workers began blockading all 75 plants and warehouses on October 23, shutting down operations across Venezuela. They were demanding that Coca-Cola pay them up to US$2.3 million they say they are owed in pension payments. Current workers also joined the dispute over plans for further redundancies, according to an October 23 article by Steve Mather.

An October 30 article by Mather reported that the blockades on Coca-Cola were lifted after four days following negotiations by National Assembly president Cilia Flores that secured a hearing for the workers in the Supreme Court.

Mather wrote that the Supreme Court hearing may not end the dispute, with National Assembly deputy Iris Varela saying of the hearing: "If the company does not pay, we will study, that by way of a judgement as the constitution demands, how we can expropriate this company and turn it into a company of national production."

The blockades came after a special commission of the National Assembly, Venezuela's parliament, supported the workers' pension claim and gave Coca-Cola until October 18 to settle the dispute. The National Assembly consists entirely of supporters of socialist President Hugo Chavez, who is leading a revolutionary process aiming to overcome poverty and empower the poor, after an electoral boycott by the right-wing opposition in December 2005.

Varela, who headed the commission, and Marcela Maspero, a National Assembly deputy who is also a national coordinator of the National Union of Workers (UNT), have played leading roles in the dispute. The workers have been supported by the UNT, including by all of its national and local coordinators.

"We have all the plants in the territory occupied and we will not allow a single truck from Coca-Cola to leave with soft drinks ... Now we will see if they will pay workers what they owe them", Mather quoted Varela as saying.

Mather reported that Coca-Cola issued a statement condemning the blockade and the support from the government: "Coca-Cola-Femsa of Venezuela is surprised that a member of a public institution of the country like the National Assembly would coordinate this type of act and we reject them as they are totally illegal and unconstitutional."

Mather wrote: "The blockade is currently over purely economic demands but it has the potential, if it is not resolved, to turn into a political battle for the expropriation of the plants. Varela has said that if Coca-Cola did not come forward with a solution then the factories could be expropriated and would produce 'Venezuelan soft drinks instead'."

According to BBC News, Lopez said, "This blockade is just the prelude to Coca-Cola being nationalised and turned over to the Venezuelan state".

This is not the first time Coca-Cola has been targeted in Venezuela. Last year, Coca-Cola, along with a series of other corporate giants such as McDonald's, Shell, Microsoft and IBM, was forced to shut its operations for 48 hours for non-payment of taxes in a government crackdown on corporate tax evasion that increased government tax revenue by 50% and went directly into an increase in the minimum wage.

In an October 24 Financial Times article Andy Webb-Vidal reflected the fear spreading among the corporate elite about the growing radicalisation of working people in Venezuela. The dispute, wrote Webb-Vidal, "might, at first sight, appear to be nothing more than a routine labour dispute", however "according to some economists, it just may be a taste of what is to come ..."

Mather reported that two days before the start of the Coke dispute, workers and the local community had taken over a textile factory in Marizapa, in the state of Miranda. The plant had been abandoned by its owners while being 100% operational, and the takeover was aimed at running it under a form of workers' co-management. Chavez has called on workers to take over plants closed by their owners, and has expropriated such companies when workers have taken them over.

According to a September 11 report, the government expropriated a sugar mill for failing to comply with an agreement made with the government for financial assistance in return for improving working conditions and involving workers in managing the company.

In his October 30 article, Mather reported that the internal fighting that has racked Venezuela's trade union movement raised its head during the dispute, with the union representing current Coca-Cola workers holding a protest outside the National Assembly and accusing Varela and Maspero of "hijacking" the campaign and carrying it out without consulting the current workers. The protest was supported by Stalin Perez, who is a national coordinator of the UNT and a leader of a faction opposed to Maspero.