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Doug Grow: Labor activist bubbly over Coca-Cola fight

Doug Grow, Star Tribune
April 25, 2004

Ray Rogers has stepped out of Minnesota labor history books and back into the limelight.

Rogers, who led a corporate campaign against Hormel in the ill-fated meatpackers strike of the 1980s, is doing what he most loves to do: making life miserable for a giant corporation, in this case Coca-Cola.

Operating on a shoestring budget from a small office in New York, Rogers has joined forces with the U.S. Steelworkers, the International Labor Rights Fund and a number of other progressive organizations in claiming that Coca-Cola is a willing participant in brutal human rights violations against workers in Colombia.

Rogers' role is to attack the corporation's image, which he's doing with a "Killer Coke" campaign.

Effective?

On Wednesday, Rogers was dragged by security personnel from a meeting of Coca-Cola shareholders in Wilmington, Del.

Rogers was at a microphone, railing against Coke's labor rights record and against the corporation's CEO, Douglas Daft, when his speech came to an abrupt conclusion.

"A guy put a chokehold on me and said, 'You're getting out of here,' " Rogers said in a telephone interview. "I told him, 'Oh, no I'm not.' I start talking again and three more guys come. They're saying, 'You're outta here,' and I'm on the ground saying, 'I'm not leaving.' I keep talking. They said, 'You're under arrest.' And I say, 'Are you police or Coke thugs?' They show me a badge, so I left. Finally took six of them."

Rogers, 60, was laughing as he told the story. He was laughing because he loves to agitate. And he was laughing because the incident drew the attention of the Washington Post, meaning there was attention paid to the underlying claim about worker abuse in Colombia.

If you've got no budget to get your message out, you've got to be creative.

A more subtle sign of the effectiveness of the campaign against Coke was played out Thursday at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Three Coca-Cola executives — including two from the corporation's Atlanta headquarters — met with a small group of Mac students who are expected to ask the school to pull out of a vending contract with Coke.

The meeting with the Mac students came only a few weeks after Coke executives tried — and failed --to persuade Carleton students not to pull the plug on Coke machines on that campus. Pepsi now has Carleton vending rights. (A Coca-Cola insider noted that the Carleton decision means that nonunion Pepsi drivers have replaced Coke's Teamsters.)

A few other colleges across the country have made similar moves.

The company clearly is concerned about damage being done, drop by drop, to its image. It strongly says that charges being leveled against it are false and unfair.

Perhaps. But as any underpaid worker can tell you, life's not always fair.

The issue is complex. Three years ago, the Labor Rights Fund filed suit in U.S. court against Coca-Cola and its partner bottlers in Colombia, claiming that the corporation and the bottlers supported paramilitary attacks on union members. The courts cut Coke — but not the bottlers — from the suit, saying that there was no direct link between the corporation and the paramilitaries. That decision is being appealed.

Coke's separation from the suit hasn't stopped the "Killer Coke" campaign.

At the meeting at Macalester, the Coke executives didn't deny that union leaders and workers have been targeted by paramilitary groups in Colombia. But they argued that everyone is a target in the bloody nation.

"It's a terrible human rights situation right now in Colombia," said Pablo Largacha Escallon, a Coke executive and a native of Colombia. "... We recognize trade unionists are a target, but paramilitarists are killing managers too."

The Coke executives were earnest in defending the record of the corporation. "I never thought I'd be in a position of trying to defend this company from murder," said Karyn Dest, Coke's public relations coordinator.

Michael Eastwood, one of the Mac students pushing to kick Coke off campus, agrees that other corporations probably have skeletons. But if the movement can get Coke's attention, he said, perhaps other companies will notice.

Meantime, back in New York, Rogers was feeling no empathy for Coke.

A long time ago in Minnesota, he tried to prove that a small union could use a corporate campaign to create a level playing field with a big corporation. The union was all but destroyed, because, Rogers believes, the meatpackers international union collapsed on its own members.

"I lost everything I had in that strike," Rogers said.

Except his zeal to take on the mighty.

Doug Grow is at dgrow@startribune.com.

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