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‘Just Say No to PepsiCo’: So Say 101 Indian workers


Vijay Prashad

One

hundred million people and sixty million cattle in India are in the midst of a

crippling drought. The states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and

Andhra Pradesh have been hit with poor monsoon rain. According to the Union

Minister of State for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, the onus for the

drought, however, falls on ‘administrative failure.’ Although the government

anticipated the drought in September 1999, it did not procure fodder for the

people and livestock, nor did it construct pipelines to draw water to the

region. The impact has been colossal. Sureshwar Sinha of Pani Morcha (Water

Front) concluded that ‘we owe the drought to the government’s disastrous policy

during the past 50 years, when 100 dams and canals were built. There is evidence

to show that as much as 55 percent of this water goes waste through evaporation

and other means.’ Strong words. If the people cannot get water, they can at

least ogle Pepsi and Coke bottles. Government water tankers visit the villages

once in a fortnight, and distribute a few liters of water per head. But the

bottles of these soft drinks sit before the parched. In most parts of India,

Pepsi can be procured for Rs. 9 (23 cents), but here each bottle costs Rs. 16

(30 cents), a price unaffordable for the people. The government relief works

project currently pays Rs 23 (53 cents) per day, enough for one bottle of the

good stuff. Let them drink Pepsi.

Meanwhile,

in the outskirts of Kanpur, far from the drought, 101 workers at a Pepsi

bottling plant (50,000 crates/month, with 24 bottles per crate) learnt the real

meaning of April Fool’s Day. Since 1995, these workers belonged to a rightist

union, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) who secured for them wages to the tune of

Rs. 2300-Rs. 3000 ($76) per month, just about above the minimum wage. These are

not uneducated workers who have no recourse to some forms of cultural capital.

The young people who hold jobs at the plant are highly educated (B. Sc.), and

many come from Dalit (socially oppressed) communities who yearn to lift

themselves from poverty. But the wages are far too low for that aspiration. So

what does a work force do when confronted by a rapacious multinational empire

and a reluctant rightist trade union? Well, scuttle their ties to the Right and

join the Communist union, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). This is just

what the workers did in January of this year. On 2 February, the management of

the Pepsi plant fired the Union president R. P. Singh and its Joint Secretary

Chauhan on the grounds of sabotage. At the time of the alleged sabotage, Singh

was not on duty and Chauhan was in another part of the factory. But who worries

about details. An inquiry began which was to end in mid-March. By late March,

the union was tired of the management’s silence, so it threatened a one-day

token strike on 30 March. Caught in deadlock, the management chose April Fool’s

Day to lock out the workers from the plant.

I’m

not sure about you, but I felt a sense of d vu when I heard this story. My

clippings are reasonably good, so I went and located my notes on a September

1997 action taken by a Pepsi bottling plant in Guatemala City which fired 28

unionists when the union submitted a contract that management did not want to

stomach. The Embotelladora Mariposa, S. A., illegally went after its

three-year-old union, SITRAEMSA who represented 360 of the 1300 employees at the

plant. Shortly after the firing, the management hired 75 new workers on a

temporary basis, eager to ward off the possibility of strong bargaining by the

workers.

Pepsico

is a giant concern. In 1998, its revenues totaled $22,348 million, with profits

of $1,993 million. Coca-Cola is reasonably smaller, with revenues of $18,813

million and profits of $3,533 (according to the US Business Reporter). Pepsi is

much larger not because itUs a better drink, but because the empire includes the

Frito-Lay company (Lay’s, Ruffles, Tostitos, Doritos, Cheetos, Rold Gold, and

Sunchips), Pepsi/Lipton and a vast number of fast food delivery services (like

KFC). With stagnation in the domestic market and with the possibilities opened

up by IMF/WTO imperialism, firms like Pepsico are on the lookout to make the

bulk of their profits in the international market. Soft drugs of all kinds

(tobacco, candy, and soft drinks) are to flood those markets that have hitherto

been saved from the advance guard of the dentist.

India,

which had expelled Coke in the 1970s, welcomed the soft drinks into the country

when it signed onto the Structural Adjustment ‘reforms’ in 1991. The priorities

of countries like India are now topsy-turvy: the regimes are now more eager to

pander to the wiles of the multinational empires than to the basic needs of

their populace. A drought for the masses is better than a drought of foreign

exchange. In the former disgruntled voters die, but in the latter one cannot

have the funds to buy all the military hardware necessary to become a ‘credible’

nuclear force. By the way, French aircraft that is so coveted by the hawks

within the Indian Defense Ministry is called the Mirage.

In

the past decade, Pepsi has been in the media for all manners of abuses. The

fracas over Pepsi’s role in Myanmar is not over yet. Their halfway pullout in

April 1996 (prior to a shareholder meeting) was a sham. At the same time, Pepsi

was obdurate about buying sweeteners from the Staley plant within the war-zone

of Decatur, this despite a boycott urged by the workers of the sugar plant. The

role of the soft drink giants in educational institutions began in the early

1990s and continues into our decade. At Penn State Pepsi signed a $14 million

contract in 1993 to be the campus monopoly. The Monty Python Society held a

Coke-In with such great lines as ‘don’t let a man in a suit tell you what to

drink!’ Meanwhile, Cynthia Peters noted that Pepsi has entered a war with Coke

over school turf, wanting to pay public schools for exclusive rights to market

their product (ZNET Daily Commentary, 23 August 1999). Billboards on the yellow

school bus, screen savers on the library computers. Welcome to Pepsi, USA.

On

May Day, the Pepsi plant in the outskirts of Kanpur sent a letter to each worker

asking them to sign an undertaking against the union or else they shall not see

their February wages or the inside of the factory again. ‘The management has

refused to attend any further talks called by the Labour Department,’ said

Subhashini Ali of CITU. ‘They are bent on breaking the union and forcing the

workers to crawl back to work.’ With the newspapers enthralled by Pepsi’s

advertising power, there is little being reported about this struggle — a small

struggle by Indian standards, but large for those who are in the midst of it.

Well I suppose it isn’t small if one consider that one of the participants is

Pepsi — mammon by any other name.

Donations

towards the union struggle (and toward a common strike kitchen for the workers

and their families) can be sent directly to Subhashini Ali, who can be contacted

at subhashini_ali@yaho[email protected], or to me, at [email protected]