This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Urging the unions to take on Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is rapidly becoming synonymous with the kind of inept rip-offs that Rodney and Del Trotter could only dream of. Flogging tap water in a bottle (it's called "Dasani") is an act of cynical and surreal genius. It is matched only by their CEO, Douglas Daft, and his vision that one day people will be able to turn on the tap marked C at the sink and fresh Coke will pour out of it.

In Coke's world of the future, tap water will come in bottles and Coke will come from the tap. Just how stoned do you have to be to think up this stuff? Most people would have to consume a good bag of quality skunk before they'd start rambling: "Right, we'll have Coke coming out of the tap, drinking yoghurt out of the bidet, and the sofa . . . will be made of nan bread."

Not content with that, Coca-Cola then managed the miraculous task of turning the decent tap water in Dasani into a cancer scare.

Marketing can't be said to be Coke's strong point. There are now smokers in pubs claiming the moral high ground. "I won't touch that Dasani. It's bloody dangerous," they rasp, "it should carry a health warning. If I had my way, I'd make Dasani drinkers stand on the office front steps if they wanted to drink it at work."

In many ways, the Dasani fiasco is the least of Coke's crimes that activists and trade unionists should be concerned about. On 15 March in Colombia, 30 Coca-Cola workers went on hunger strike outside eight Coke bottling plants. At this point I want you to accept one basic fact: hunger strikes are not a negotiating tool often used in the trade union movement; they are the tool of last resort and a sign of these workers' desperation.

If you can't accept this, stop reading now and head straight for the Tesco food voucher competition.

Colombia has a bloody history of paramilitaries murdering trade unionists, often in collusion with the armed forces. Coca-Cola's Colombian bottlers now face legal action in the US under the Alien Tort Claims Act, accused of collaborating or hiring paramilitaries to murder, torture, kidnap and make disappear Coca-Cola workers and trade unionists.

Eight trade unionists who worked for Coke have been killed thus far: Isidro Segundo Gil was killed inside a Coke plant, and his wife, who also campaigned for justice, was murdered by the paramilitaries. Now the bottlers have suddenly sacked 91 workers from the plants: 70 per cent of them are union organisers. Sinaltrainal (Colombia's national union of workers in the food and drinks industry) says this is "essentially to eliminate the union".

One trade unionist said: "If we lose against Coca-Cola, we will first lose our union, next our jobs and then our lives." In a country where more than 3,000 trade unionists have been murdered since 1987, it is not hard to see how people come to such conclusions.

Just over a week into the protest, and strikers are already being threatened by the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, which issued a statement to "declare war on the individuals that we have already identified as the leaders of the organisation. They must leave . . . or they will become a military target and we will finish them off. Anti-subversive justice will carry out justice."

The president of Sinaltrainal, Luis Javier Correa Suarez, takes this threat seriously. So he should: there have been two attempts on his life and another attempt to kidnap members of his family. Luis Javier is fortysomething, dresses smartly in the way working-class men on a modest wage do, and looks more like a union branch official than a president. Not a man to sit on the sidelines, he has already joined the hunger strikers.

It is hard to imagine a British trade union president or general secretary going on hunger strike. The only thing that would put some of them off their food is the prospect of the membership coming out on strike - which would leave many of the biggest bosses choking on their chocolate bourbons/canapes (delete as applicable).

There are notable exceptions of internationalism, from the Scottish Fire Brigades Union to London Unison. But generally, the trade union movement - the very people who should automatically be supporting Luis Javier and the other hunger strikers - are conspicuous by their silence. And their silence could be deadly.

Will Luis Javier Suarez become just another name on a leaflet? Just another on the growing list of 3,000 dead trade unionists? Without international support, it is highly likely he will. The upper echelons of the TUC might not like his call for an international boycott of Coca-Cola, as it upsets the new Labour/big-business pact.

But this is a matter of life or death.

It is time once again to ask Britain's trade union leadership: "Whose side are you on?"

See also: Coca Cola's Nazi Links.

Monday, March 15, 2004

The Cost of Innocence

When it comes to creative writing you'd be hard pushed to find better exponents than the British police. Since the Birmingham Six and numerous other miscarriages of justice, where people were framed for crimes they didn't commit, it is sometimes difficult to know if a "confession" made to the police is testimony for the courts or a bid for the Booker prize. With this pool of talent it can only be a matter of time before the new Terry Pratchett emerges from the thin blue line. Though personally I am hoping the Home Office will produce a new Franz Kafka and publish the story of how a normal young beetle wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant David Blunkett.

Now before the New Labour acolytes and ideological catamites have time to bleat "This is just so 1990's!" let me just point out this is all far from over. For victims of miscarriages of justice the ordeal is still very much alive and come the 16th of March it is back in the courts.

When the Birmingham 6 were compensated for wrongful imprisonment the details of their awards were worked out by the government appointed independent assessor Lord Calcutt, now replaced by Lord Brennan. Calcutt insisted on two significant factors for the calculation. Firstly that a sliding scale of compensation should be introduced as according to Calcutt the first year in prison was the worst and the subsequent time became easier to bear. Strangely enough none of the victims of miscarriages of justice have ever said, "Once I knew where the showers were life inside was a piece of piss." Neither have they said "The eighteenth year of my wrongful imprisonment was such a breeze I'll settle for a couple of book tokens and some bonus points on the Nectar card."

The second part of Calcutt's calculations was that the innocent men should have deducted from their compensation the costs incurred by the government for their food, clothes and lodgings, under the catchy title of Saved Living Expenses. To bill these men with these charges is spiteful, ridiculous, unjust and entirely in keeping with Blunkett's behaviour, who in an uncharacteristic bout of liberalness has waived the huge cost of police time, deliberately wasted with the mens intransigent and wilful innocence.

Vincent Hickey and his cousin Michael Hickey served 18 years after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of newspaper delivery boy Carl Bridgewater. They were both sent a bill for £60,000 for food and lodgings by the Home office, which would have taken about a quarter of their compensation. Vincent Hickey went on hunger strike before his release and said, "I should have gone on huger strike for longer than 44 days then the bill would have been less."

The Hickey cousins and Michael O Brien, who served 11 years for a murder he did not commit and was billed £38,000 for his B and B, successfully challenged the Home Office. In March last year they won a ruling that stated the Home Office were wrong to try and deduct this money from them.

The Home Office ever mindful of the cost to the public purse have decided waste even more money by appealing the decision and the case arrives at the High Court on London on the 16th. If successful the Home Office will have the right to charge wrongfully convicted people for their incarceration. They must therefore either make a concerted effort to jail the guilty or start arresting people on their ability to pay. If they do take the latter option they could make a populist start by locking up Dame Shirley Porter.

Once this is adopted Blunkett can move swiftly to modernise prisons by introducing the right for prisoners to buy their own cells, something that would cheer up Shirley, who would no doubt be eagerly campaigning for prisoners rights to vote. In a short time Pentonville would be awash with Foxtons minis, as estate agents eagerly advertise " Bijou studio cells, sleeps six, panoramic views of the exercise yard and close to the table tennis area." Ford Open would become an "up and coming area", with white collar criminals proclaiming loudly that "You won't believe what the cell is worth now. We were very lucky and bought just before the prisons reached capacity."

Blunkett has a problem with people being "innocent" so he has introduced internment, prison without trial, and is seeking to lower the burden of proof to get a conviction in terrorist cases (a practice that the Birmingham 6 and many others would argue has been in operation for some time). It is depressingly predictable that in 18 years time we will be reading of Muslim men and women wrongfully held under anti terrorism legislation and I wonder what the government will attempt to bill them for?

Monday, March 01, 2004

Why do the police fear frisbees?

The "Fairford Coach" high court judgment on 19 February found the police to be in breach of human rights law. The case, brought by Jane Laporte against the Gloucestershire Constabulary, dates back to 22 March 2003. Three coaches of peace protesters going to join a demonstration at RAF Fairford, from where US B-52s were launching strikes on Iraq, were stopped some six miles from the base. The passengers were searched. They co-operated with the police. Once they were safely back in the coaches, the police - without a word of explanation - barred the doors and forced the drivers, under threat of arrest, to return to London under police escort. More than 120 people were forcibly detained on board.

Police vans and cars drove at the front and rear of the convoy, with police bikes riding alongside. The protesters hung banners from the windows reading "Help! Peace protesters illegally detained".

After a few supportive honks from passing motorists, the police closed the motorway behind the convoy, presumably to prevent those supportive car horns breaching noise pollution levels. Either that, or the Burmese military was on a twinning project and happened to be in charge that day.

Protesters phoned 999 to report their kidnap. The officers at the other end of the line went from concern to confusion to neglect in a matter of minutes. This led one group of frustrated protesters to feel that the only right to protest they might exercise that day was to erect a sign reading "All coppers are bastards!" in the back window, much to the amusement of officers in one of the accompanying police vans. In the circumstances, you have to admire the protesters' restraint.

The hearing took place in January. The police claimed that they had found offensive items on the coaches which showed that a breach of the peace would occur. Originally, the items included a hammer, a saw, two poles and knives. These were photographed for submission as evidence. On closer inspection of the photos, the solicitors found that each item had a label attached showing where it had come from. Strangely, none of the labels bore a place name matching the site where the coaches were detained.

A police video proved that the items were in fact confiscated from a traveller in an entirely different vehicle, at an entirely different location. Somewhat embarrassed by all this, the police pushed ahead, insisting that they had found other offensive items, this time actually on the coach. These were two motorcycle crash helmets, a bag of plastic toy soldiers, a frisbee, two pairs of kitchen scissors and five home-made card-and-board shields.

One can only guess the amount of magic mushrooms a sane person would have to consume to believe that a frisbee constituted a genuine threat to roughly 3,000 police officers. Even Lord Justice May and Mr Justice Harrison came to the conclusion that these couldn't be judged offensive, noting that shields and crash helmets could only be defensive.

The verdict has to be seen as a draw. The judgment is only a victory of sorts for the peace protesters, leaving both sides almost certain to appeal the decision. While the judges found the police actions of detaining people without arrest to be in breach of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to liberty, they found that the police did not breach Article 10, the right to freedom of expression, or Article 11, the right to assembly.

So the police were wrong to detain the protesters but right to turn them back to London and thus deny them the right to protest. That the police couldn't have stopped them protesting without detaining them seems to have eluded the judges who, we can only assume, are playing Luke Skywalker to Lord Hutton's Yoda.

So far, press coverage has ignored one aspect of the police's defence. Chief Superintendent Kevin Lambert, in his witness statement to the court, defended his actions as upholding the protesters' human rights under Article 2. Article 2 is the right to life.

What threat was there to the protesters' lives? Lambert said that "had a member of the public penetrated the defences and been killed or injured by one of the armed personnel guarding the B-52 aircraft . . . [the] political consequences would have been extremely damaging to the coalition partners . . . and consequently could have interfered with the prosecution of the war".

So Lambert seriously believed that protesters could be lawfully killed for entering the base. Not surprisingly, the police lawyers didn't use this defence in the trial. Perhaps because under the rules of disclosure Lambert would have had to produce the government's legal advice and policy, showing that Tony Blair was not only prepared to lie and ignore the wishes of the population, but was prepared to endorse the murder of British citizens, armed with a frisbee and a bag of plastic toy soldiers.