LEFT TURN magazine | March 5, 2004
The Coca-Cola Co. spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to promote "The Real Thing." The reality surrounding Coca-Cola shows a corporate network that is rife with immorality, corruption and complicity in murder from Colombia to India. Labor, student, peace and human rights activists have been promoting the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke's "Unthinkable! Undrinkable!" petition campaign that threatens the public image that Coca-Cola has spent decades and billions of dollars to create. Here is an update on the progress of the campaign.
Over the Nov. 22 weekend, thousands of protesters led by Father Roy Bourgeois marched against the School of Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. Hundreds of "Killer Coke Can't Hide Its Crimes in Colombia" and "Colombian Coke Float: Unthinkable! Undrinkable!" protest signs were carried and thousands of brochures and petitions were distributed.
The following Tuesday, 5,000 signed "Unthinkable! Undrinkable!" petitions were delivered by a group of supporters to Coke's headquarters in Atlanta, led by union carpenter and Northwest Campaign Coordinator Ken Little, who is also the labor liaison to SOA Watch.
On December 7, UAW Local 22, the largest GM local in Detroit, held a union meeting. The outcome was described in Local 22's publication, The Steward: "Now the Coke machine in our union hall has been disconnected and President Craig Nothnagel made calls to the bottler telling him we no longer need the Coke machine and Coke products. We are going to try to do the same in all our plants." At the meeting, International Vice President and Organizing Director Bob King stated: "This is a campaign that everyone should support and has to be won."
Local 22's editor and volunteer Campaign Coordinator John Martinez is working with several universities, labor and Latino groups in the Detroit area to organize a large rally in mid-April.
The United Hebrew Trades Division of the Jewish Labor Committee sent out "Colombian Coke Float: Unthinkable! Undrinkable!" petitions to its affiliates with the following message: "United Hebrew Trades joins in supporting this Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, and urges all members and affiliates to choose beverages not bottled by Coca-Cola?This is an ongoing campaign which will need a lot of support."
A number of other labor organizations have given significant support to the Campaign. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union from the U.S. to Canada was one of the first unions to remove Coke from all its offices. The Boston School Bus Drivers Union USWA Local 8751 President Steve Gillis informed us that Coke machines were removed from four bus garages.
Last April, at Coke's annual meeting in Houston, Harris County AFL-CIO Council Secretary-Treasurer Richard Shaw and SINALTRAINAL leader William Mendoza Gomez confronted Coke's board of directors while labor and human rights activists demonstrated outside. Mr. Shaw stated: "Organized labor across America is standing up for the Colombian Coca-Cola workers whose lives are placed in peril everyday they go to work in the bottling plants."
The South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, led by Executive Officer Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, passed a resolution to support SINALTRAINAL's campaign to distribute one million "Unthinkable! Undrinkable!" protest petitions urging "labor and human rights organizations to sever all business ties with SunTrust Bank until such time as the bank severs all ties with Coca-Cola." Any readers holding stock in The Coca-Cola Company, or having deposits or stock in SunTrust Banks, the bank of Killer Coke, should contact the Campaign.
Betsy Guerra, a teacher at Lyon Elementary School in Washington rallied support to remove the Coke machine from the faculty lounge. Betsy said, "This is only costing Coke 20 cases a month, but now I'm working to get other friends, colleagues and faculty unions to spread the word and do the same."
Student activism on college and university campuses is growing throughout the world. Student groups from coast to coast and internationally are increasing pressure on administrators to sever, not renew or not consider contracts with Coke. In July, October and December, students on a number of campuses protested against Coke's complicity in human rights abuses in Colombia. United Student Against Sweatshops chapters and other support groups are active in the Campaign on dozens of campuses.
In October, students at the University College Dublin, the largest university in Ireland with more than 20,000 students, passed a binding student referendum to ban all Coke products from student-run facilities. Coke sent executives to Dublin to do extensive groundwork and felt confident that they were going to influence and win a second referendum held on November 18-19. With a much larger turnout, Coke lost 54% to 46%. There is a growing movement on campuses and in pubs in Ireland to do the same. At least two pubs in Ireland have banned Coke from their premises, including one of Belfast's best-known pubs, the John Hewitt Bar and Restaurant.
In Canada, on December 13, more than 30 labor, student and human rights activists led by Campaign Coordinator Larry Wells, human rights chair of the Oakville and District Labour Council, distributed thousands of Coke Float petitions to fans entering a professional hockey game. This version of the petition highlights Coke board member and Chief Financial Officer of Dow Chemical, J. Pedro Reinhard, and his presence on the board of the Royal Bank of Canada. In late November, Bill Saunders, president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council, distributed Killer Coke Campaign literature to 800 delegates at the BC Federation of Labor's policy convention.
On Jan. 9, a fact-finding delegation of unionists led by New York City Council Member Hiram Monserrate, left for Colombia. If they conclude that the allegations against Coke have merit, there will be a move to bring the issue to the city council and public sector unions to use the leverage of hundreds of millions of dollars of public pension money invested in Coke.
The Campaign will soon be aggressively promoting protests against Coke's financial support network. This will include activities directed at SunTrust Banks, which has 1,200 branches in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC. SunTrust shares numerous board members with The Coca-Cola Co.; Coca-Cola Enterprises, its largest bottler, and Coca-Cola FEMSA, its largest Colombian bottler. The bank also owns 5% of Coke's stock and is a principal lender and underwriter for hundreds of millions of dollars to The Coca-Cola Co. The Campaign, which is built on volunteer efforts, will need a large number of supporters in the areas where SunTrust is located.
The Campaign is also targeting Barclays Bank in England, which is a major shareholder in both Coke and SunTrust Banks. Barclays holds billions of dollars of stock in Coca-Cola, hundreds of millions of dollars more in other Coke operations and is the third largest institutional shareholder in SunTrust Banks.
In addition to the violence against workers in Colombia, the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke's website, www.killercoke.org, highlights other abuses of Coca-Cola throughout the world. This includes a history of discriminatory practices; aggressive marketing to children of nutritionally worthless and damaging soft drinks; a bad pension policy and cheating workers out of pay; marketing fraud; safety and health problems; overexploitation and pollution of water sources and the distribution of toxic sludge as fertilizer in India; repressive anti-worker policies in many countries; inaction and neglect on health issues in Africa, and anti-competitive practices around the world.
The importance of winning this campaign is best summed up by SINALTRAINAL Vice President Juan Carlos Galvis, who said: "If we lose the fight against Coca-Cola, we will first lose our union, next our jobs and then our lives."
— Ray Rogers
Ray Rogers is Director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke and Corporate Campaign, Inc. (212) 979-8320.