Coke Tunisia: Struggle for Democracy Leads to Union Victory

by Paul Garver

Trade unions played a crucial coordination and organizing role in the mass revolt in Tunisia. Communities in revolt turned to the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) for coordination and organization as the social movement gathered force. The social upheaval in turn strengthened the unions in their power struggles with transnational companies like Coca-Cola.

At Coca-Cola’s Tunisian bottler SFBT, the union Fédération générale de l’alimentation et du tourisme (FGAT-UGTT) seized the opportunity to negotiate an end to agency work and roll back the abusive use of precarious employment contracts. After a series of mobilizations and strikes in the 10 bottling plants, the Coke bottler had to concede the creation of 1000 new permanent positions for workers who had been employed “temporarily” for over four years, and the direct employment of another 1000 agency workers in positions covered by the union contract. These employees would also be made permanent after they had been employed for four years.

Within Coke’s global empire, from India and Pakistan through China and Colombia (to name just a few of the most egregious cases), the abusive practice of sub-contracting workers (sometimes called agency or dispatch labor) is rampant. Often a small core of unionized permanent workers is surrounded by a vast penumbra of workers without secure employment status or the right to benefits under the collective bargaining agreement. The Global Coke Workers Alliance has made combating this systematic abuse by Coke bottlers as its highest priority, but progress has been painfully slow and difficult in most countries.

The swift and decisive victory of the union representing Coke workers in Tunisia is proof positive that struggles for workers’ rights and for democracy are joined at the hip.

For full details of this successful struggle, see the following interview conducted by the IUF (International Union of Foodworkers) with Houcine Krimi, who is responsible for TNCs for its Tunisian affiliate FGAT-UGTT.

The IUF spoke on February 1 with Houcine Krimi, responsible for transnational companies at our affiliate FGAT-UGTT.
How did Coca-Cola workers respond to the mass protests in the country?

We participated in all the demonstrations against the dictatorship. At the same time, we organized the casual workers to demand a solution to their appalling situation. They have been working for a labour agency where our collective agreements don’t apply, where social security payments are not made and they have no job security. They are on temporary contracts which are renewed each year, some of them since many years. That also effectively prohibits them from joining our union as they risk losing their jobs. This happened last year to workers at BST, Coca-Cola’s merchandising subsidiary.

We had a single demand: recognize these agency workers as direct SFBT employees. Under Tunisian law, every worker employed for more than 4 years must be directly employed on a permanent contract; we demanded that these workers be permanently employed by Coca-Cola, not with the agency.

For the others, with less than 4 years seniority, we demanded that they be employed on temporary contracts directly with SFBT, and permanently employed after 4 years.

What action did the union take at factory level?

We have been working on the issue of casual employment since last year, but it was very difficult to make progress. Now, with the new situation, the workers went on strike in support of their demands, first at Meghrine, one of the 10 Coca-Cola bottling plants in the country. They struck for a whole week. We also involved the labour inspection.

Did the permanent workers join the strike?

Yes, but we had to convince them first. In the beginning, they said they had many demands of their own. We explained that the single objective for now had to be fighting the system of casual work. Once we solved this we would be stronger and it would be easier to deal with other questions as a strong, united union in the company.

How did Coca-Cola management react to the strike and the demands?

The negotiations in Meghrine were truly difficult! In the other plants, the locals were not as quick to mobilize as in Meghrine. We concentrated here to make a breakthrough. Management tried to use this to say they could close the bottling plant in Meghrine if we demand too much.

They also tried to win time, saying that they couldn’t take decisions in an insecure political environment, “we’ll sort it out when things calm down” etc. But we didn’t believe them – after all, they weren’t ready to resolve the problem when everything was calm before the protests started!

We finally managed to convince them at Meghrine because it was clear the strike would continue if they didn’t meet our demands.

After a very long discussion with the management, they finally accepted our demands for Meghrine. The labour inspection was also helping us to push for a positive solution.

What were the results of this break-through at Meghrine?

We signed an agreement that all casual employees who have passed the 4-year line will sign permanent contracts directly with the Coca-Cola bottler – this covers 78 workers. The agency workers with more than 2 years seniority at Coca-Cola will now be directly employed by Coca-Cola on a temporary basis –32 workers will benefit from this.

Our activists had prepared a list of names of workers to be made permanent. Management had their own list. On that basis we negotiated a solution: the joint list is part of our agreement.

What happened then?

Of course, the union locals at the other factories wanted to follow this example. We worked with them to prepare for negotiations, but more importantly, mobilize the workers. We knew we needed to apply more pressure. We can’t negotiate successfully without mobilizing.

We started negotiations in the big plant in Ben Arouz, and on January 31 workers in Béjá went on strike. Workers from the Coca-Cola Charguia plant and the Brasserie de Tunis followed on February 1. That day we mobilized over 300 workers from these plants to demonstrate outside the SFBT headquarters where the negotiations took place.

When management understood that the protest wave would continue, we quickly reached our goal. We have signed an agreement to the effect that labour agencies will no longer be used in any establishment of the SFBT group: soft drinks, the brewery, the dairy operation, even bars and cafes belonging to the group. All workers with 4 years seniority at SFBT employed through labour agencies or on temporary contracts will be made permanent, direct employees at the company. This will affect over 1000 people. Everybody with less than 4 years will get direct temporary employment with SFBT, and will be covered under the collective bargaining agreement. That is another 1000 or so people.

What are the next steps?

We will carefully monitor the implementation of the agreement. At each location, management and the union will agree on a list of workers to be transferred to permanent status. Workers then have to get their documents together and present them to SFBT, after which they will be made permanent as of February 1. We’ve set a time limit until March 31 to finish this work. We’ll make sure all these workers join the union, and through this we’ll come out much stronger.

We are also currently doing similar work in other sectors and we expect more such agreements to be reached soon.

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3 Responses

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Carol Dunn, Talking Union. Talking Union said: Coke Tunisia: Struggle for Democracy Leads to Union Victory http://bit.ly/fBensK #labor [...]

  2. [...] same offenses there as elsewhere – water hoarding, environmental contamination, and extreme abuse of workers. But their products remain successful in the same countries – especially those, [...]

  3. [...] is worth noting this article by Paul Garver (shout out again to Sophia) where he points out that trade unions played a huge role [...]

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