The Real Thing
Guatemalan Coke workers on strike

by Kimberly Safford

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 39-40
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

THE REAL THING is a new documentary film about the trade union movement in Guatemala. A New York filmmaker, who is also a union president, shot it and an international trade union federation based in Geneva produced it.

In February 1984, the owners of a Coca-Cola plant (located about 10 minutes from downtown Guatemala City) informed its workers that, due to bankruptcy, the plant would close the next day. But the 460 workers refused to accept the loss of their jobs and the loss of their union, for which they had fought so hard and which had become one of the strongest unions in Guatemala. So they decided to peacefully occupy the plant until they won their jobs back. THE REAL THING documents this struggle, within the historical context of the Guatemalan trade union movement. The film also shows the union initiated world-wide support for the boycott of Coke, designed to push the company to deal with the workers.

The filmmaker, Peter Schnall, is president of NABET (National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians). The film was supported financially by a "union of unions," the International Union of Food and Allied Workers Associations, (I.U.F.). Founded in 1920, the I.U.F. is a world-wide trade union federation whose founding principle is labor solidarity. THE REAL THING makes many important connections between Central American solidarity work and North American trade unions.

For the film crew and their I.U.F. executive producer, the shoot in Guatemala was a real eye-opener. "We went down as tourists with 20 cases of film luggage," says Schnall. "When we were coming into the city from picking up the film at the airport, some of the workers gave us a little tour. They said,

"See that fancy house that looks like a castle? In the basement they torture people. See that car with no license plates? It's a death squad car; the plates flip up when they go to or come back from a job."

It was horrific and sad. When we got into the plant, I was startled by the set-up that the workers had established — feeding and taking care of themselves, setting up a community inside this walled-in factory."

The shape the film would take became apparent only after the filmmakers entered the occupied plant and realized it was too dangerous to go in and out. They stayed in the factory for about one week, sleeping in the union hall. Says Schnall,

"We originally wanted to film the families of the workers back at their homes, or follow some of them handing out leaflets. But every time we decided to go somewhere, we were told — some times minutes before we were to get in the car — that something was happening that made it extremely dangerous for us to leave. Just as we were leaving to shoot at the university, we heard that several student leaders had been kidnapped hours beforehand. We could have filmed at the university. But no one could guarantee what would happen to us once we stepped outside the university grounds. So, the scenario became more and more focused on the existence inside the walled plant."

"Daily the workers received letters and telegrams of support from unions all over the world.  They even got a letter from the Australian Refrigeration Union. They knew that somewhere out there people understood what was going on. Also money slowly began to arrive. They knew the world was watching, even though there was no coverage of the occupation in the Guatemalan newspapers. The workers themselves bought radio announcements, in the form of advertisement time, to announce what was happening inside the plant."

THE REAL THING details life inside the occupied Coke factory: the daily meetings, organizing sessions, and unglamorous day-to-day tasks (like handing out the toilet paper). The film strongly conveys the dedication of the workers, and the love they feel for one another. Schnall says,

"We were the first outsiders to come into the plant. It was important to them that we were North Americans and that we were newspeople. When we arrived, they had already been in the plant about a month. To them, our arrival represented a major sign that somebody was interested and cared about their situation. We broke a very tedious and monotonous daily routine."

 "We also broke a tension between them and the government. We represented some form of safety for them. They were wondering how long the government was going to allow them to stay in the plant. The workers were extremely kind and friendly to us; they always made sure we had a place to eat and sleep. The workers were surprisingly at ease with the camera crew. We became a part of the daily family union structure. It meant a lot to them."

Although the Guatemalan military harassed the plant almost every night, the film crew was left alone. Schnall is unsure why the Guatemalan government allowed the film to be shot and taken out of the country, since the government obviously knew what kind of film was being made:

"Perhaps, it's that the Coke union is very visible, and the government didn't want the other trade unions rallying behind the Coke workers. Certainly the Guatemalan government didn't want an international incident on its hands and neither did Coca-Cola in the United States."

Working with the I.U.F. was a positive experience for the filmmakers. The I.U.F. treated them as workers, who deserved respect, autonomy, control over the production, and pay for their labor. This was a new and happy experience for filmmakers who are accustomed to competing for dwindling grants, spending years fundraising, working for free, or paying out of their own pockets. Schnall notes that the I.U.F. didn't demand major changes in the film and gave more money when the project ran over-budget.

But as a result of working for the I.U.F., there are important contradictions in the film. What the workers say about their situation and the references to the Nationalist Jacabo Arbenz government in the early 1950s indicates that the workers are consciously part of the larger revolutionary movement in Guatemala. They don't just want a better contract with Coke, they want a whole new form of government. Their struggle is highly politicized. Yet the film tends, mostly by omission, to reduce this political struggle to a conventional trade union struggle. "If Coke would only live up to its contractural obligations to its workers," the film argues, "then everything would be all right." The film focuses on the international trade union solidarity movement and boycott that forced Coke to negotiate with the I.U.F. Nonetheless, and this is the power and benefit of the film, the reality of the workers and their lives overwhelms these conventional politics. The film is a welcome and valuable addition to the raging debate within the labor movement over U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

By depicting the Guatemalan workers' attempts to retain their jobs at a U.S.-based company, the film makes an important connection between U.S. and Central American workers' struggles, a connection that is crucial for educating U.S. working class people and gaining their support against U.S. policies in Central America.

Filmmaker Peter Schnall was introduced to the Coke workers in Guatemala as a filmmaker and a union worker. He found,

"It meant a lot to the workers, not only to be filmed and for their story to be told, but for them to know that a union person, a union president, was making this film. It was an added boost for them. For me, as a union president of a very white collar, privileged, highly-skilled, technical group of workers, it was fascinating to meet and spend a very intense time with one of the most together, understanding, coordinated, friendly, and moving union groups I have ever seen. These people would die for each other. They would stand in front of their friend who was about to be shot. For them it's not just a struggle for a plant, it's a struggle for their lives. It represents everything for them. It was an education for me as a union president. I wish everybody in unions could understand what it means to die for the right to work."

THE REAL THING is an important model for filmmakers and unions working together. For the I.U.F., THE REAL THING was a bold step into making media. The usual information outlets for unions are pamphlets, brochures, speeches or lectures. "Entertainment" is a new concept for unions; as one I.U.F. representative exclaimed after seeing the final cut of THE REAL THING; "It looks like a real film!" Unions in the U.S. increasingly recognize the impact, power, and usefulness of slide shows, videotapes, and films to focus dramatically on and increase awareness of an issue. The next step is for unions to begin making and supporting films on issues they feel are important, to use the media to reflect their own lives and work, to participate in making images of themselves and their concerns. But money is a big factor — making films is expensive.

THE REAL THING is above all, about workers and trade union struggle. Unfortunately, in some cases, the film is being lumped into and lost in the recent spate of films on Central America. One major New York theater, dedicated to screening independent films, rejected THE REAL THING because "we've already shown too many Central America films". The film has, however, received an enthusiastic response at union meetings across the country.

This 36 minute, color, 16mm film is available from Real to Real Productions, 357 W. 36th Street, New York, NY 10018. 212/736-3887. Sliding scales are available for both rental and sales.