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Coca-Cola faces a repudiation campaign:

Unions promote a lawsuit and boycott for the assassination of union leaders in Colombia

La Jornada
By Jim Cason, David Brooks and Roberto Gonzalez
January 15, 2005

Unions in Colombia and the United States accuse Coca-Cola and the Mexican company Femsa, owner of Coca-Cola bottlers in that South American country, of hiring paramilitaries to assassinate unionists. The accusing organizations are promoting an international campaign — which includes a lawsuit in the United States against those two companies — that aims to protect the workers and compensate the families of the murdered unionists.

The national steelworkers union in the United States (United Steelworkers of America) presented a legal complaint before the United States federal courts against Coca-Cola, Femsa, and the Colombian bottler, which could potentially represent hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Femsa was included in the lawsuit because it is one of the principal owners of the bottler in Colombia.

Unionists and students in the United States and other countries are promoting with the slogan "killer coke" to inform about the company's labor, human rights and environmental practices, and they already got several universities to cancel their sales contracts in their academic facilities.

The brand has already mounted a large-scale counteroffensive against the lawsuit and the campaign, sending executives to the universities in order to face the threat of a boycott. It also launched its own website, www.cokefacts.org, to respond to the site www.killercoke.org.

Although the legal case has faced pitfalls and suffered handicaps, its promoter, Ray Rogers, affirms that the campaign continues to gather strength. Six universities in the United States and three in Ireland have rejected the sale of Coca-Cola at their academic centers.

The national union of postal workers (APWU) and the service employees union (SEIU), as well as the California Teacher's Federation, have formally joined the campaign, while other unions and labor federations also support the cause.

Rogers, who has headed up ambitious national actions to support union struggles for more than two decades, is the director of the Corporate Campaign organization. He calculates that this campaign has already cost Coca-Cola millions of dollars. "We have their attention," he said in an interview with La Jornada.

"Fortune magazine has said that it is the worst public relations nightmare that Coca-Cola could imagine."

Rogers is now formulating plans to contact students and unions in Mexico, and Femsa's shareholders.

"Do the Femsa shareholders know that this lawsuit in the United States could cost their company hundreds of millions of dollars?" he asks. "We are also trying to contact student leaders and academics to see if Coca-Cola has a large presence at universities like UNAM, and to see if they are interested in joining the global killer coke campaign."

SOS in response to abuses

The campaign against Coca-Cola started after unionized workers at Colombian bottling plants, which had recently been bought by Femsa, sought international support. "We need your support to stop an atrocious cycle of assassinations, kidnappings, and torture of Sinaltrainal leaders and organizers, who are in a constant life-or-death battle in Coca-Cola's Colombian bottling plants," wrote Javier Correa, president of the food and beverage workers' union, in an open letter to unionists worldwide.

The union now accuses Coca-Cola in Colombia of selectively firing workers at its plants in order to eliminate the union. This is the culmination, it says, of a campaign of intimidation of unionists that has lasted a decade, including the assassination of seven union leaders and, last April, the assassination of three of union leader Efrain Guerrero's family members, precisely during the union's negotiations with the company.

The accusation that Coca-Cola's Colombian bottler is lined to paramilitary groups received new credibility in the United States in 2004, when a judge in Miami agreed that the Colombian bottler could be sued in this country for violating the human rights of its workers.

In summing up the case that was presented before the court on behalf of the Colombian union, the judge described what happened in 1995 after Isidro Gil was elected president of Sinaltrainal's Carepa section, where one of the plants of bottler Bebidas y Alimentos is located: "One month later, Bebidas hired members of the paramilitary to work in the sales and production departments of the company."

A new company administrator was hired, and "he allowed paramilitaries access to the plant and came to an agreement with paramilitary leaders to remove the union from the Bebidas plant using threats of violence, if necessary."

One year later, paramilitary leaders shot and killed Gil when he opened the door to the plant. The American judge continued: "Witnesses identified the killers as paramilitaries who had been in the Bebidas plant before" with the administrator. In his preliminary decision, the judge removed Coca-Cola from the list of defendants in the initial lawsuit, because it could not be held responsible for the actions of its Colombian bottler.

But since that first judicial evaluation of the case, Femsa, two years ago, bought the primary Colombian bottlers. Coca-Cola USA owns 46 percent of Femsa. The Colombian union, the United States steelworkers union, and Terry Collingsworth, an American lawyer from the International Labor Rights Fund, who presented the lawsuit, have formally asked the judge to consider reinstating Coca-Cola USA and Femsa as defendants in the case. They expect that the judge will issue a decision sometime this year.

"Coca-Cola must be worried about this," Collingsworth told La Jornada. "If 100 percent of your Colombian bottlers are now facing charges of torture before the courts, that is something new." Now that Femsa is the owner of the Colombian bottlers, and Coca-Cola is Femsa's largest shareholder, he says he is confident that the judge will agree to include both of them in the case.

In its defense, Coca-Cola in the United States says that the accusations that its local bottler had ties to the paramilitaries were already investigated by Colombian courts, which determined that the accusations were false.

They also mention another Colombian union, Sinaltrainbec, which also represents some of the bottler's employees, and says that there is "not even one indication" that Coca-Cola is linked to illegal armed groups. Finally, Coca-Cola reiterates on its website that the United States judge removed it from the lawsuit as a defendant.

Meanwhile, Femsa in Mexico also denies the accusations. Femsa spokespersons interviewed in this country affirmed to La Jornada that "the repeated accusations of the Colombian union against the Coca-Cola company and its bottling partners are totally false. They are nothing more than a shameless campaign aimed to get publicity using our company name and its registered trademarks."

They added that "The Coca-Cola Company and its bottling partners deplore and condemn any act of violence committed in Colombia by any paramilitary or guerrilla group against union leaders or any other group. We have worked with the Colombian unions to provide security measures to employees and union leaders."

Finally, Femsa spokespersons said that "respect for labor and human rights is one of the fundamental principles that characterize Femsa's commercial activities worldwide. We treat our employees in all countries with justice, dignity and respect. We as well as Coca-Cola operate in compliance with local laws and contribute to the communities we serve."

But there are indications that the United States company is suffering damages as a result of the campaign. The leader of the campaign against Coca-Cola, Ray Rogers, and other activists brought public attention to the assassinations of Colombian unionists at Coca-Cola's annual shareholder meeting in Atlanta in 2004.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that the executive vice president and head lawyer of the company, Deval L. Patrick, resigned last year in part because the company refused to comply with its promise to do an independent investigation of the supposed link between Coca-Cola bottlers and paramilitaries in Colombia.

Corporate Campaign has developed a four-part strategy to challenge Coca-Cola's image, deny them access to markets such as universities, and embarrass the company's shareholders and investors. The campaign's motto, "Murder...it's the real thing," plays on the company's publicity motto: "Coke...it's the real thing".

The Campaign's website, killercoke.org, irritates the company so much that it launched its own site and bought similar internet addresses like killercoke.com and other variations that now carry a site defending the company's behavior in Colombia.

Rogers argues that the campaign does not intend to promote a general boycott against Coca-Cola, but that it does seek to attack the company's specific markets, including universities and unions. The campaign also seeks to create tension with banks, companies and institutions that conduct business with the company. "Coca-Cola in Atlanta (the company's world headquarters) loves to talk about 'the world of Coca-Cola'," Rogers explained. "The reality is that it is a world full of lies, deception, immorality, corruption, and serious abuses of human rights and the environment."

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