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Coke's Colombian controversy:
Activists, students claim company is complicit in anti-union violence; Company says the facts support its stance

By SCOTT LEITH
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/13/05

Ray Rogers is a nearly lifelong labor activist who has targeted companies since the 1970s. His tough tactics, forged in an epic struggle against textile maker J.P. Stevens, made him famous and even feared in corporate circles.

Now, using his time-tested hardball approach, Rogers is hitting his biggest target yet: Coca-Cola.

Yale Die In

Yale "Die In"

The issues center on violence in Colombia, where, since 1990, a number of Coke bottling system employees have been among thousands of union members, peace activists and many others killed in a long-running, nationwide conflict. In the United States, a collection of activists — mostly union members and college students spurred by Rogers and his "Campaign to Stop Killer Coke" — have steadily gained support for the view that Coke hasn't stopped violence against union organizers.

While Coke vehemently denies the claims — some of the victims have been managers, not unionists, and a new report by an outside firm hired to weigh the issues found that unions function freely at Coke's Colombian plants — the activist movement has still grown into a hot topic on campuses and in union halls.

At left-leaning schools like Minnesota's tiny Carleton College, kicking Coke out of school has been a way for students to take concrete action — something many students feel they can't do when it comes to huge issues like, say, the war in Iraq.

Coke, meanwhile, has looked almost powerless to stop its critics.

Next Tuesday, at Coke's annual meeting in Wilmington, Del., protesters plan to assemble for the fourth straight year. The company has begun to take their efforts more seriously and, on Wednesday, tried another tack by releasing a report by Cal Safety Compliance Corp., a Los Angeles firm that evaluates human rights and other issues.

The report, which looked at six Coke bottling plants in Colombia, found no major problems, based on interviews with managers and workers.

But this isn't much different from what Coke has said all along about its Colombian operations. So far, none of it has made much of a difference to the Killer Coke protesters, led by Rogers.

"Coke has tried to deal with this as a public relations matter," Rogers said. "Until they address the situation, they're gonna suffer some heavy losses, and it's only gonna get worse."

In Colombia, people throughout society have been murdered by the thousands over the years. Amnesty International estimates that, in 2003 alone, more than 3,000 civilians were killed in the violent country.

In many ways, it's not surprising that Coke has come under fire there. The company is well-known everywhere and it's a single entity, so the deaths of people associated with it are easier to target than the entire problem.

The Colombia activists also have taken a different approach from many protesters who've targeted Coke on various issues over the years.

Instead of calling for widespread boycotts — which generally get ignored — Rogers has encouraged smaller bans. He has appeared on many campuses, even little ones, to promote efforts to remove Coke products. He's not shy about demonizing the beverage maker.

"This is one of the sleaziest companies that I have seen," he said.

The Nation, a left-leaning magazine, in a recent update about the ongoing activity, called Coke "the new Nike," harkening to the days when the shoemaker was targeted with on-campus demonstrations about overseas sweatshops.

Student minds made up

When it comes to Colombia, many of the basic facts aren't in dispute. Coke and the activists say several employees of bottling operations have been killed over the last 15 years.

Coke blames Colombia's violent climate and says the company and its bottlers have had nothing to do with death squads. The activists, in turn, blame bottling managers in Colombia, saying the company wants to hurt the union.

"Many of these activists are not interested in the truth," said Coke spokeswoman Kari Bjorhus. "Some are misleading young people by making unsupported allegations and incorrect statements about our company."

Coke bottlers have contracts with a dozen unions in Colombia. One, Sinaltrainal, has been the force behind the anti-Coke campaign. Members have spoken in the United States, appearing on campuses such as Georgia State to seek support.

Brooklyn-based Rogers, however, has been the most vocal advocate. Last year, he ramped up the rhetoric during an appearance at Coke's annual meeting, when he repeatedly shouted at then-Chairman and CEO Doug Daft. Rogers spoke longer than allowed and, when he refused to leave, was grabbed by security staffers. After a scuffle, he was led out in front of a stunned audience.

Today, Rogers still talks about suing Coke over the incident. "I've definitely got a team working on this," he said.

As in the days of the J.P. Stevens struggle of the '70s — a victory for Southern textile workers that was so huge it inspired the movie "Norma Rae" — Rogers has a talent for gaining followers. Last year at Carleton, a 1,900-student school in Northfield, Minn., he helped persuade student leaders to end their vending contract with bottler Coca-Cola Enterprises.

C.J. Griffiths, president of the Carleton Student Association, voted against Coke but was torn about the decision. "What tipped my vote was the massive student support," he said. Hundreds turned out for a four-hour debate.

At huge schools like the 38,972-student University of Michigan, activists are busy, too, trying to end nine different contracts with CCE.

They're not big-dollar deals in CCE's world — valued at about $1.3 million in 2004 — but the school is so big it would be a major win for activists. Michigan has a code of conduct for vendors and is reviewing the Colombia claims. A major hearing is set for April 25.

Today's political environment is highly polarized, of course, from ongoing debates over Iraq to complaints about the policies of President Bush. Yet Coke has been a hot-button topic on campuses, mainly in the Midwest and Northeast.

Some are places with large numbers of left-leaning students, like Michigan and New York University. Others have a more mainstream environment, like Purdue and Iowa State.

"It's a huge issue on NYU's campus — definitely the top activist issue," said Crystal Yakacki, a 21-year-old senior.

Robin Hart Ruthenbeck, director of campus activities at Carleton, said Rogers was an "impassioned" and "dynamic" advocate when he appeared on campus. Coke representatives sounded corporate.

"Ray Rogers has learned how to talk to 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds," Ruthenbeck said. "If I was 17, I know exactly what my response would have been."

Griffiths, president of Carleton's student body, was surprised the Coke issue got so much attention. But students gravitated to it because they felt they could have an impact, he said, by removing Coke from vending machines.

"I thought Coke came off a lot more positively than Mr. Rogers did. Most students would agree, but they had already made up their minds," Griffiths said.

Coke points to report

Coke believes the facts are on its side, including the new report by Cal Safety. "Having the assessment done by an independent group that's well respected globally will go a long way," Bjorhus said.

But the criticism is likely to continue. Terry Collingsworth, an attorney with the International Labor Rights Fund, is involved in a nearly 4-year-old suit against the Coke system in Colombia. Coke itself was dismissed as a defendant, leaving only the bottlers, but Collingsworth hopes to bring Coke back into the case after an appeal.

Rogers ridiculed the Cal Safety report as "tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse." "I'm sure Coca-Cola paid them a lot of money to buy their allegiance, as many other corporations do," he said.

Rogers, whose goals include getting money for families of slain union members in Colombia, wants to expand anti-Coke activities to high schools and to attacks on Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks, which has a decades-old relationship with Coke.

"There's really a bandwagon effect being created now," Rogers said. "We have a history, and a very good history, of being effective in what we do. ... God is on our side."

Photo: STEPHANIE DZICZEK/Yale Daily News: Coca-Cola's then chairman and CEO, Doug Daft, continues to lecture on ethics on the Yale University campus in March 2004 as protesting students stage a 'die-in.'

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