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'Killer Coke' Campaign Targets UJA Honoree on Colombia Rights

By STEVEN I. WEISS | Forward Staff | June 3, 2004
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Attendees at a United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York dinner next week will have to pass through a picket line on their way inside. The black-tie dinner, set to honor the president and chief operating officer of the Coca-Cola Company, Steven Heyer, has become the subject of a protest by the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, a group claiming that Coca-Cola and its bottlers have participated in "gross violations of labor rights and human rights in Colombia."

Stop Killer Coke alleges that Coca-Cola and its bottlers are responsible for a paramilitary campaign that has killed union organizers who tried to unionize workers at the bottling plants in Colombia.

The allegations are part of a federal lawsuit filed in Florida by the Colombian labor union Sinaltrainal, the United Steelworkers of America and the estate of Isidro Gil, a Coca-Cola employee killed on company grounds in Colombia. The suit, filed under the Alien Torts Claims Act, seeks to "remedy and prevent the violent persecution of trade unionists at various locations of one particular company doing business in Colombia — Coca-Cola."

A March ruling by the federal court in Florida dismissed the Coca-Cola Company from the list of defendants, while finding that the plaintiffs may continue with the suit against local bottling companies more closely associated with the activity in Colombia. The plaintiffs say they plan to appeal the ruling, claiming that a new agreement between Coca-Cola and its bottlers justifies the suit's claim against all the original defendants.

Stop Killer Coke is led by Ray Rogers, a veteran labor activist known for pioneering consumer campaigns against such firms as J.P. Stevens and Hormel, and the California grape industry. The Stop Killer Coke campaign is backed by the steelworkers and teamsters unions and the International Labor Rights Fund, an AFL-CIO offshoot.

A member of the New York City Council, Hiram Monserrate, led a delegation of labor activists to Colombia in January to investigate the allegations, and produced a report that claims: "The conclusion that Coca-Cola bears responsibility for the campaign of terror leveled at its workers is unavoidable." The report adds: "It seems indisputable that... the company has allowed, if not itself orchestrated, the human rights violations of its workers, and it has benefited economically from those violations."

In a letter addressed to leaders of UJA-Federation of New York and the dinner's honorees, Rogers wrote, "We hope it is not too late... to reconsider what, in light of the above, could be seen as an insensitive and ill-advised decision to honor Mr. Heyer and, by implication, to give Coca-Cola a 'clean bill of health' at a time when its hands are so demonstrably dirty."

The UJA-Federation of New York released a statement to the Forward Wednesday saying that Heyer was being honored "for his accomplishments and leadership as an individual who has demonstrated an astute sense of creativity and vision, creating effective and innovative brand-building initiatives in this new global marketing era."

The Coca-Cola Company denies the allegations against it, calling the suit a "publicity stunt."

"The allegations are false, and it's outrageous to believe that The Coca-Cola Company would have anything to do with this type of behavior," the company said in a statement provided to the Forward. The statement points to two judicial inquiries in Colombia and the dismissal of the company from the federal lawsuit as evidence of its innocence in the matter. The statement also declares: "We are confident that as this case proceeds, the court will find no evidence against our bottlers, as well."

Colombia has been wracked by a decades-long, three-way civil war, pitting government troops against left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups backed by drug cartels. Labor organizers have been particularly targeted, reportedly accounting for some 4,000 deaths, or 12% of the total, since 1986.

Of 213 trade union leaders murdered worldwide in 2002, 184 died in Colombia, according to the London-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Agence France Presse reported Tuesday that one of the founders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group alleged to have killed Coca-Cola employee organizers, had left Colombia and made his way to Israel. AUC reportedly was founded by drug traffickers in the 1980s and is part of an amnesty deal reached last month between the government and guerrilla groups. The missing leader, Carlos Castana, was wanted on drug trafficking charges in the United States and was believed to have been negotiating a separate amnesty deal, angering his allies. Ha'aretz quoted Israeli government officials as saying they did not believe Castana had entered Israel.

Forward, Founded April 22, 1897

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