“Tito” Zelko is a C.P.A. who has been working for the Finance Department of The Coca Cola Company since 1985. He was previously employed by the Ford Motor Company until that same year, when the automotive firm closed down its offices in Uruguay. Zelko was hired by TCCC at the time when Uruguay was leaving behind a period of military dictatorship (1973 – 1985).
The workers’ union was one of the first organizations to consider the issue of those who had lost their jobs as a consequence of political persecution, at a time when many former co-workers started returning from exile or were released from imprisonment. Zelko was elected President of the Workers’ Union of the Coca-Cola Company (STCC) in the elections held recently.
-The last union elections evidenced a high level of participation by workers, right?
-Yes, 91% of the members entitled to vote participated in the election that included 15 of the 19 departments into which Uruguay is divided. A particular aspect in this election was the possibility of the outsourced workers from the Distribution area to participate both as candidates and voters, upon a resolution by the former directors.
-Now that you mention the outsourced workers, something that must be pointed out are the great advances made by the Union towards increasing direct contracts.
-Indeed, 200 workers that were outsourced are now directly hired by TCCC.
As you have commented on several opportunities: this case would be one of a kind within the transnational company. In that sense, the efforts and determination of the former directors must be acknowledged.
The scenario was that seasonal workers stayed on the job over the maximum period of ten months permitted for seasonal work, with the same wage and working conditions.
Because this was the case for three consecutive years, the STCC union decided to bring up the issue to the directors of the time, and during their initial negotiations, an agreement was reached for having 120 workers from the distribution area to be included in the company’s payroll, in addition to other 80 workers who were hired at a later date.
The previous Board of Directors made it possible for 200 workers to be included in the company’s payroll.
-Which workers are members of the union?
-The workers of Montevideo Refrescos – the affiliate of The Coca Cola Company –, and also the workers of the Distribution area working at the warehouses, as well as on the outsourced trucks.
We also have a group representative of the workers from the maintenance/janitorial area, even when they are not direct members of the union. This area of the company was outsourced in the year 2002.
The union has taken part in negotiations with the company where we have conquered a series of benefits for these workers.
-How many people does the maintenance area include?
-Approximately 70 workers. We are currently working on negotiations aimed at having about a dozen workers who handle outsourced trucks within the plant to be put on a level with our wages. This would mean a significant salary rise for them and also their access to a number of benefits.
-Our affiliate in the dairy sector in Argentina (ATILRA) has managed to have the personnel responsible for stocking supermarket shelves be admitted as union members. What is the situation in this sense in the case of Coca Cola?
– We have had diverse experiences in this regard. Attempts were made to organize a union of stockers, but that is an activity where people don’t stick to a position for a long time.
The workers who do the stocking of shelves with Coca Cola products have contacted us and we have provided them with assistance and support, but they have not become part of our union yet.
-Is there a possibility for them to register as members of the STCC union?
-That possibility exists, but it happens that the issue not only depends on the union but rather on the particular dynamics of that community of workers.
Some four or five years ago, there were workers of The Coca Cola Company working on that task, and they were union members, but at present they are employees hired by another company that provides the service.
-What is the total of members at the STCC?
-At present we have 700 registered, representing approximately 65% of a total of 1,100 workers.
-What are the challenges lying ahead for the union?
-We could classify them into two types of objectives: medium or long term objectives. The former being the objectives relative to everyday union issues such as working conditions, salaries and so on. And the latter are those intended for strengthening our union organization, and for including young workers in the union’s actions, so that they can become the candidates for taking over the positions of directors of tomorrow, in union activities that are often hard to deal with.
We want to include young workers in the union’s activities so that they may be considered candidates for leading the organization in the near future.
-What is your opinion about the “Jugos del Valle” juices imported from Argentina?
-It has been a common practice for the company to import products, such as Coca Cola in can containers, which is not produced in Uruguay, in addition to other examples with different levels of popularity in the market.
At present the company is importing flavored water such as Aquarius (from Paraguay and Argentina) and Jugos del Valle, from the Argentinean province of Córdoba.
In recent years, this type of companies have had to adjust to market trends by including products to improve their profit.
-Like yerba mate, for instance…
-(Laughs) A fact to be considered is that Uruguay is the country with the highest per-capita consumption of yerba mate in the world. Since 2009, The Coca Cola Company has been commercializing a yerba mate branded “La Vuelta”, which is imported from Brazil.
Getting back to the beverage segment, the company has made public its plan to locally develop some of the products, but a process for improving the factory’s production infrastructure must be implemented first.
This represents a great challenge for the union. Thanks to IUF and to the workers from the Argentinean Federation of Workers of the Soda Beverage Industry (FATAGA) we can keep updated on the technology necessary for manufacturing certain products, and aware of the possible effects implied for the working force.
-You have a long-standing relationship with FATAGA, is that right?
-Yes, we do. And I should mention that we have always had the full support and solidarity of that Federation, regardless of who has occupied the directing positions. They have always been there for us.
I remember that in the dark years, the 1970s, when many workers were forced to exile, the workers from FATAGA offered their true solidarity, and that is something we must publicly acknowledge.