Killer Coke
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Coked Out — Protesters rail against Coca-Cola at local supermarkets

By Julia Zhou | City Beat | July 29-August 4, 2004

Last Thursday afternoon, Sheila Dickson and her husband got groceries as usual at the Fresh Grocer supermarket at 40th and Walnut streets. But as they headed to the checkout line, three protesters appeared and questioned why they were buying two 2-liter bottles and a 12-pack of Coca-Cola.

"It's like drinking the blood of Colombian union workers," said Berta Joubert of the Philadelphia International Action Center while pulling the bottles out of Dickson's cart. "This is the blood of our brothers and sisters in Colombia." Joubert then explained her stance that Coca-Cola kills workers at its South
American plants and urged the shopper to boycott the soda giant.

It was, after all, International Day Against Coca-Cola. So, what did Dickson do when confronted by the protesters? Even though she usually buys two or three bottles of Coke a week, she didn't by any that day.

"It sounds like something that could happen," she explained.

Though the activists didn't try to hide their intentions in the days leading up to their protest, Fresh Grocer employees weren't all that happy with the display. "You can't stop people from buying what they want," said a security guard before telling the protesters to leave. "I'm going to drink Coca-Cola regardless," said a cashier. "We're not in Colombia."

Having left the building, Joubert and about a dozen others continued their protest. They rallied around a 6-foot, bright red "Killer Coke" can made of plywood that claimed factories that bottle Coke products in Colombia use the paramilitary to keep workers from unionizing. And furthermore, they say, Coca-Cola's headquarters hasn't done anything to stop it.

One handbill the protesters distributed described the case of Isidro Gil, an executive in the Colombian beverage workers union Sinaltrainal. After paramilitary troops were brought into the Carepa plant where Gil worked as a manager, he was shot and killed. From there, workers were forced to quit the union under threat of death. A statement from Coca-Cola referred to the murder, but denied a plant manager had anything to do with it. It quoted a Colombian court that cleared Coke of any wrongdoing.

Company spokeswoman Lori Billingsley said that the company has already "publicly condemned all acts of violence against workers in Colombia." She added, "The allegations are false and it's outrageous to believe that the Coca-Cola company would have anything to do with this kind of behavior."

Last week's event was designed to support the larger "Campaign to Stop Killer Coke," which is run by Ray Rogers, a professional activist who runs New York-based Corporate Campaign Inc.

Rogers demands that Coke take out advertisements to publicly dissociate itself from the actions of the paramilitary, appoint ombudsmen to communicate complaints between workers and managers, and pay damages to the victims and their families. His group was founded to complement the civil lawsuit brought against Coca-Cola in July 2001 by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), Sinaltrainal and the United Steelworkers of America.

Coca-Cola officials didn't return calls for comment, but ILRF's executive director, Terry Collingsworth, explained that the company does not actually own its bottling plants in Colombia - only 49 percent. That way, he said, they can "have it both ways" - the profits and "effective control" belong to Coke, but they can claim not to be responsible for the actions of local managers.

"They are asserting that this is one area that they don't control, which is ludicrous," Collingsworth said.

However, the U.S. District Court of Southern Florida backed Coke's stance. In March 2003, the judge dismissed Coca-Cola as a defendant, but because Femsa, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, bought Panamerican Beverages in May 2003, the ILRF has filed a motion to reinstitute Coke as a defendant in the case.

"We're going to mount a challenge to the image they spent billions and decades to create," says Rogers. "I don't know of any more important struggle than this."

Just as Rogers' fight continues, so too does Joubert's.

Despite the Fresh Grocer eviction, she says she plans to protest at various supermarkets at least every other week. She'd be well-served not forgetting Fresh Grocer, though. Manager Chris Spratt says their 12-foot Coke section sells out daily.

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