Letters to The Nation Re: THE WORLD ACCORDING TO COKE
by OUR READERS, PATRICIA J. WILLIAMS & MICHAEL BLANDING
[from the May 22, 2006 issue]
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO COKE
In "The Case Against Coca-Cola" [May 1] Michael Blanding expends some 3,000 words recounting tired, unsubstantiated allegations against The Coca-Cola Company. In all those words, there are about 150 of response from Coca-Cola, a disappointing but not surprising lack of balance that would make even Fox News blush. While The Nation is more about point of view than point of fact, it is still worth noting:
§ the approximately 440,000 workers in the Coca-Cola system (including workers at majority-owned entities and independent Coca-Cola bottlers) about 144,000 are represented by unions.
§ In Colombia, where fewer than 4 percent of workers are union members, about 31 percent of workers in independent Coca-Cola bottling plants are represented by one of the twelve unions with which the Colombian Coca-Cola bottlers have ongoing normal relations.
§ The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations (IUF), the global federation of unions that represents the majority of union workers in the Coca-Cola system, unanimously rejected the call for a Coca-Cola boycott. In its rejection the IUF said, "Sweeping, unsubstantiated allegations and assertions of the type found in the boycott appeal do nothing to help the cause of the unions that organize and represent Coca-Cola workers around the world, the majority of which are members of the IUF."
§ Among other unions not supporting the boycott are SICO, SINALTRAINBEC, Asotragaseosas and CUT (the National Federation of Trade Unions), all in Colombia.
§ In Britain a motion to boycott Coca-Cola on college campuses was overwhelmingly defeated in a vote at the National Union of Students' (NUS) annual conference in March.
§ Individual trade unions, Amicus, TGWU and GMB, as well as the umbrella organization for UK trade unions, the TUC, do not support the call for a boycott. In an open joint letter to NUS delegates the general secretaries of the trade unions wrote: "Since the first call to boycott Coca-Cola over Colombia was issued in 2003, the UK trade union movement has investigated and monitored the situation closely.... Since 2003, no evidence has been provided to link Coca-Cola to the assassination of its workers in Colombia. We do not believe that a boycott of Coca-Cola would contribute in any way to saving lives or achieving a just and lasting peace in Colombia."
§ In India company- and franchisee-owned bottling operations directly employ nearly 6,000 people and indirectly create employment for 125,000 more in related procurement, supply and distribution roles. Virtually all the goods and services required to produce and market Coca-Cola products locally are made in India, insuring that the benefits of the employment impact of our system remain in the local communities in which plants operate.
§ The Coca-Cola Company has been cited by leading Indian business magazines as one of the most respected companies in the country. Our operations in India have been recognized by government officials and Indian and other nongovernmental organizations for philanthropic initiatives and contributions to community development and achievements in environmental management, water conservation and pollution control. For three consecutive years Coca-Cola plants in India have won the prestigious Golden Peacock Environmental Management Award for environmental practices from the Institute of Directors, which grants the award in association with the World Environmental Foundation. Coca-Cola has received recognition from the Indian Red Cross for its environmental programs. In 2005 the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) recognized the Hindustan Coca-Cola Kaladera plant as a Water Efficient Unit across industries at the National Award for Excellence in Water Management. The Kaladera pl ant also won the Innovative Project Award for its contribution to reduction in specific water consumption.
§ At Coca-Cola we recognize our responsibility and accountability to workers throughout our system and to the communities in which we operate. We are eager for constructive engagement with parties sincerely interested in helping us advance global workplace rights and environmental stewardship. Collaboration and cooperation of the type we are engaged in with the International Labor Organization for evaluation of workers' rights practices in Colombia and with the Energy and Resources Institute for assessment of water stewardship practices in India are far more likely to advance the interests of all parties than the confrontation unfortunately favored by Ray Rogers and Terry Collingsworth.
ED POTTER, director
Global Labor Relations, The Coca-Cola Company
To learn more about the case against Coca-Cola, see the report at our website. Rob Harris and Tovin Lapan, students at the UC, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, went to Colombia to investigate charges that Coke was complicit in the murder and repression of union leaders (www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/fellows/colombia0106/).
I was shocked by Michael Blanding's information on Coca-Cola's repressive labor practices in underdeveloped countries. Does Pepsi have a better track record? If so, I will switch from Coke to Pepsi.
Jamaica Plain, Mass.
I spoke at length with Ed Potter in preparing my story, and where he provided credible counter-arguments to the allegations against Coca-Cola, I included them. However, most of the defenses he provided--many repeated here--are at best irrelevant and at worst misleading. For example, Potter's assertion that 31 percent of Coke workers in Colombian plants belong to a union takes into account only full-time employees, disregarding the 75 percent who are part-time or contract employees. And while it's true that some Colombian unions support the company, the union that has called for the boycott, SINALTRAINAL, represents more than two-thirds of Coke's unionized workers (some 400 of 600 employees). Other unions are smaller (SINALTRAINBEC reportedly has 10 workers) and/or have directly benefited from the dismantling of SINALTRAINAL (for example, IUF affiliate SICO replaced it at the Carepa plant after Isidro Gil's murder).
The IUF has taken its lead from its Colombian affiliates, which have been more conciliatory in their negotiations with management. Even so, the IUF has far from given Coke a pass on its human rights record. After the recent vote against the boycott by British student groups, the IUF's general secretary cautioned, "Coca-Cola must recognize that the vote was essentially about the tactical value of a boycott. The vast majority of UK students share the IUF's view that the Coca-Cola Company must guarantee respect for human and trade union rights throughout its global system and must put in place credible mechanisms to deliver on this guarantee...if Coca-Cola does not deliver something that union members, students and customers will accept, then those who have claimed that the only thing the company understands is the damage to market and reputation that a successful boycott might bring will be proved right" — hardly a ringing endorsement for the company. The call for a boycott in the UK, meanwhile, was not "overwhelmingly defeated" but was narrowly stopped by a 300-259 vote, a close margin for an organization that represents some 700 British campuses.
Regarding India, while no one denies the economic benefits brought by the bottling plants, they do not negate the clearly documented effects of water depletion and pollution. Nor do any number of awards — like the vaunted Golden Peacock, which comes from an environmental organization sponsored by Coca-Cola India that proudly sports the Coke logo on its website!
Potter fails to dispute any of the facts in my article, instead relying on misleading exonerations by third parties. He uses tactics Coke has, sadly, too often employed--blunting criticism with PR spin. In our interview Potter told me that Coke pulled out of an independent investigation into the Colombian situation by universities and nonprofits, including the Workers Rights Consortium (the respected nonprofit that investigated Nike's sweatshop abuses), because it was afraid the group was biased against it. Coke is participating in a new investigation by the International Labor Organization, a UN group with no track record--and one on which Potter serves as company representative. A similar investigation in India is being conducted by an environmental group that — yes, that's right — lists Coke among its corporate sponsors.
To answer the Pepsi question: Pepsi has certainly had its problems with human rights and the environment. Like Coke, it has been targeted for its aggressive marketing of bottled water and accused of depleting and contaminating groundwater in India (though not as extensively as Coke). In the late 1990s Pepsi was subjected to a successful boycott over a bottling partnership with the repressive regime in Myanmar (Burma). And Pepsi has been equally blamed for soda's role in the US childhood obesity epidemic. But human rights campaigners have not accused Pepsi of the same level of unionbusting as Coke, or of complicity with murder and kidnapping of union leaders. Activists I spoke with see Coke as unique in the scope of its abuses; furthermore, some hope that by pressuring the industry leader (Coke), they can compel the entire soft drink industry to implement a stricter code on human rights. So, many of the student campaigns have been encouraging their administrators to switch from Cok e to Pepsi as the lesser of two evils.
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