The Case Against Coke
"Coke has a long history of being a virulently antiunion company," says Lesley Gill, an anthropology professor at American University who has twice been to Colombia to document the violence. "It has been calculated and targeted, and it usually takes place during periods of contract negotiations." A 2004 investigation directed by New York City Councilman Hiram Monserrate documented 179 "major human rights violations" against Coke workers, along with numerous allegations that "paramilitary violence against workers was done with the knowledge of and likely under the direction of company managers." The violence has taken a toll on the union. In the past decade, SINALTRAINAL's Coke membership has fallen from about 1,400 to less than 400.
Coca-Cola representatives deny involvement of the company or its bottling partners, contending that the murders are a byproduct of the country's civil war. In response, the company touts the security measures it offers union leaders, including loans for home security systems and reassignment for those in danger. Furthermore, Coke points out that it has been exonerated in several cases in Colombian courts. However, charging those courts as ineffective--only five paramilitaries have been found guilty of murder, despite 4,000 killings--SINALTRAINAL reached out in 2001 to the International Labor Rights Fund, a Washington-based solidarity organization. Using a US law called the Alien Tort Claims Act, the ILRF and the United Steelworkers filed suit against Coke and its bottlers in Miami later that year. In 2003 a judge ruled that Coca-Cola couldn't be held responsible for the actions of its bottlers and dropped it from the case, even while allowing the case against the bottlers to go forward. ILRF lawyer Terry Collingsworth finds that decision preposterous, noting that Coke has ownership shares in its Colombian bottlers and highly detailed bottling agreements. "I'm 100 percent sure that if Coca-Cola in Atlanta ordered them to change their uniform color from red to blue, they would do it," says Collingsworth. "They could stop these activities in a minute."
While the ILRF has appealed the decision, procedural rules require it to wait until the case against the bottlers is over before the case against Coke can be taken up again--a process that could take years. "We needed to figure out a way that Coke sees delay as bad," says Collingsworth. In 2003 SINALTRAINAL put out a call for an international boycott of Coke products. At the same time, the ILRF contacted Ray Rogers, head of Corporate Campaign, Inc., an organization that consults with unions to win contracts through unorthodox methods. Over the past three decades, Rogers has forced concessions from a dozen companies--including American Airlines, Campbell's Soup and New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority--not through strikes or negotiations but through an aggressive strategy of publicly embarrassing anyone associated with his targets.
Rogers immediately saw Coke's weakness: its brand. "They are right at the top of the worst companies in the world, and yet they've created an image like they are American pie," he says. "When people think of Coca-Cola, they should think about great hardship and despair for people and communities around the world." From the beginning, Rogers appropriated Coke's trademark red script to make the Killer Coke logo, and tweaked its advertising campaign with slogans like "The Drink That Represses" and "Murder--It's the Real Thing." He made a dramatic first appearance at a Coke annual meeting two years ago, when police wrestled Rogers away from the mike and forcibly dragged him out of the hall.
Early on, Rogers rejected SINALTRAINAL's call for a consumer boycott of Coke products, fearing it would be ineffective and might alienate unions working with Coke. He focused on "cutting out markets" by going after larger institutional ties. He convinced several unions, including the American Postal Workers, several large locals of the Service Employees International, and UNISON, the largest union in Britain, to ban Coke from their facilities and functions, and he induced pension-fund managers, including the City of New York, to pass resolutions threatening to withdraw hundreds of millions in Coke stock investments unless Coke investigated the Colombia abuses. He persuaded not only the SEIU but the largest US union of Coke's own employees, the Teamsters, to pass a resolution in support of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke and to speak out at last year's annual meeting (the Teamsters stopped short of banning Coke from their own facilities). "It's horrendous what we're hearing," says David Laughton, secretary-treasurer of the union's beverage division. "The company's lack of action is having a ripple effect all over the country in school and college, and that means reductions in jobs for us. It's time for them to wake up and admit their errors."
The campaign's greatest success has come at colleges and universities. Rogers set up a website with a step-by-step guide for students looking to convince their institutions to cut multimillion-dollar Coke contracts, and he's traveled to schools to hold rallies and advise students. One by one, more than a dozen schools in the United States, as well as a handful more in Ireland, Italy and Canada, have decided to cut lucrative beverage contracts or otherwise ban Coke from campuses. The effort accelerated after it was joined by United Students Against Sweatshops--one of the main groups behind the Nike boycott of the 1990s--which helped organize its own chapters. Anti-Coke campaigns are now active at some 130 campuses worldwide. "This campaign against Coke has politicized a new generation of students," says Camilo Romero, a national organizer with USAS. "It's something that students feel personally connected to, because it's something they can hold in their hand," says Aviva Chomsky, a professor at Salem State College in Massachusetts, which severed ties two years ago. "It's too easy to say, 'There are so many bad things in the world, I'm just going to concentrate on my own life.' It's the concreteness of this that's appealing."