Capitalism, choice work—even in Colombia

By James Wang

An anti-Coke campaign is being waged across our campus to protect the Coke workers in Colombia from unbridled capitalist oppression. Take Daniel Benjamin, a second-year philosophy student, who writes that Coke workers in Colombia are subject to inhumane working conditions, not to mention paramilitary murder (“With Coca-Cola, Capitalism’s Injustices Are Abundantly Clear,” 5/11/07).

Indeed, let us suppose for the moment that Benjamin’s unproven charges (innocent until proven guilty notwithstanding) are true. Taking him at his word, the Coke workers in Colombia work in a terrible environment with terrible pay and constantly under the threat of death by paramilitary groups. I pose a very simple question: “What on earth is making the workers work there?”

With the aid of complex economic theory and Nobel Prize–winning research, let me try to attempt an explanation. Grab some notes. Are you ready? It’s because the workers are choosing to work there. If a worker chooses Coke over another available job, that worker must prefer working for Coke to other available jobs. It could be the fact Coke pays them more than they can earn elsewhere, or Coke has better perks (free Coke, perhaps?), or maybe there are no jobs elsewhere. The point is, Coke gives their workers such an attractive package that their workers want to work there regardless of the inhumane working conditions and risk of paramilitary murder (which is not unique to Coke employees in Colombia).

Economic theory proves that capitalism without a mobile workforce leads to worker oppression and low wages. In a nutshell, if workers cannot freely choose their employers, then their employers can treat them as terribly as they want. This is not what activists attack Coke for. (Does anyone say that Coke kidnaps and forces its workers to work?) The principal crime that Benjamin and groups like accuse Coke of is not allowing union labor. I’m not going to get into the actual pros and cons of union labor, but let us consider their assumption that unions lead to higher wages (they do not) and are in general “workplace positives” akin to having a workplace day care or a gym. The crucial point is that the ability to unionize is as inherent a right as demanding a work place with said gym or day care—it’s nice if you can get it, but it’s not guaranteed.

I hear the screams already: “How can you compare a basic workers’ right such as unionizing to something as frivolous as day care?” Never mind that single mothers would probably prefer having a day care on site than the right to unionize, but if unionizing were of such importance to workers that they needed it, then Coke workers would leave and find a job that allowed unions (presumably Pepsi).

People who need health care find jobs that offer health care if they are available. People who need flexible hours find jobs that offer flexible hours if they are available. People who need unions find unionized jobs if they are available. I stress “if they are available” because workers may “need” to have a job that pays an eight-figure salary, but if no one is willing to offer it, then they can’t have it. And if no one in Colombia is offering unionized labor, then Coke is just par for the course. Coke workers in Colombia have decided that the right to unionize is not as high on their list of priorities as the other incentives that Coke offers them (a job at a wage). How do I know this? Because Coke workers choose Coke over other employers.

Until the anti-Coke activists can show that Coke is kidnapping and forcing their workers to work, then any argument on wages, unionizing, and workplace conditions is moot. If it comes out that the Coke board is paying the paramilitary groups to kill their own employees, then criminal charges should be brought against the board. I would support that. If it comes out that Coke is poisoning its workers because it is an evil, profit-hungry corporation, then criminal charges should be brought against the board. I would also support that. But if all Coke is doing is paying a competitive local wage and giving Colombian natives a chance at employment, then to boycott Coke is to boycott every company that does business anywhere. Just because a U of C philosophy student would not take the job doesn’t mean that people aren’t lining up outside Coke plants pleading for an opportunity.

Besides, all boycotting Coke would do is limit student choice. If the anti-Coke activists hate Coke so much, then they shouldn’t drink it (or go work for Pepsi). Don’t take away my choice because of your morality. Next thing you know, they’ll be pushing for a campus boycott of Chinese products just because China doesn’t allow workers’ unions. If the anti-Coke activists have their dream and Coke closes its plants in Colombia, I guarantee you that those displaced workers will not be happy.