The Case Against Coke
The ballroom at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware, is the picture of opulence. Paintings of Greek gods and goddesses peer down from the walls, lit by two crystal chandeliers the size of Mini Coopers. It's here in April that the Coca-Cola Company will hold its stockholders' meeting, an annual exercise designed to boost the confidence of investors. If the meeting is anything like last year's, however, it may do the opposite.
As stockholders filed into the room in April 2005, news hadn't been good for Coke, which has steadily lost market share to rivals. Investors were eager for reassurance from CEO Neville Isdell, a patrician Irishman who had recently assumed the top job. Few in the room, however, were prepared for what happened next. As Isdell stood at the podium, two long lines formed at the microphones. When he opened the floor, the first to speak was Ray Rogers, a veteran union organizer and head of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke. "I want to know what [Coke is] going to do to regain the trust and credibility in order to stop the growing movement worldwide...banning Coke products," boomed the 62-year-old.
That was just the beginning of a ninety-minute slugfest that the Financial Times later said "felt more like a student protest rally" than a stockholders' meeting. One after another, students, labor activists and environmentalists blasted Coke's international human rights record. Many focused on Colombia, where Coke has been accused of conspiring with paramilitary death squads to torture and kill union activists. Others highlighted India, where Coke has allegedly polluted and depleted water supplies. Still others called the company to task for causing obesity through aggressive marketing to children.
In the past two years the Coke campaign has grown into the largest anticorporate movement since the campaign against Nike for sweatshop abuses. Around the world, dozens of unions and more than twenty universities have banned Coke from their facilities, while activists have dogged the company from World Cup events in London to the Winter Olympics in Torino. More than just the re-emergence of the corporate boycott, however, the fight against Coke is a leap forward in international cooperation. Coke, with its red-and-white swoosh recognizable everywhere from Beijing to Baghdad, is perhaps the quintessential symbol of the US-dominated global economy. The fight to hold it accountable has, in turn, broadly connected issues across continents to become a truly globalized grassroots movement.
Coke shrugs off the protests as coming from a "small segment of the student population," says Ed Potter, the company's director of global labor relations. "What I see are largely well-meaning attempts to put a spotlight on some reprehensible things--but which are unrelated to our workplaces." Nevertheless, Coke has fought back with ads on TV and in student newspapers, part of a mammoth advertising budget that has increased 30 percent in the past two years, to a staggering $2.4 billion. However, as evidence against the company mounts ahead of this year's annual stockholders' meeting, so does the pressure for Coke to address its growing international image of exploitation and brutality.
On the morning of December 5, 1996, union leader Isidro Segundo Gil was standing at the gate of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia, when two paramilitaries drove up on a motorcycle and shot him dead. A week later, unionists say, paramilitaries lined up all the workers inside the plant and forced them to sign a letter resigning from the beverage union SINALTRAINAL, spelling the end of the union at the plant.
Violence against union members is a fact of life in Colombia, where nearly 4,000 have been killed by paramilitaries in the past two decades. But Gil's murder was different, say his union brothers; two months earlier, they observed the plant manager meeting with a paramilitary commander in the company cafeteria. And just a week before he was killed Gil had been negotiating with the company over a new contract. Workers see these events as an example of the collusion of bottling executives with the paramilitaries. "From the beginning, Coca-Cola took a stand to not only eliminate the union but to destroy its workers," said SINALTRAINAL president Javier Correa in a recent speaking appearance in the United States.
Nor was Gil's murder a unique occurrence, says Correa. In all, eight union members and a friendly plant manager were killed between 1989 and 2002. Even today, union leaders routinely receive death threats and attempts on their lives. In 2003 paramilitaries kidnapped and tortured the 15-year-old son of one union leader and killed the brother-in-law of SINALTRAINAL's vice president. This past January, says Correa, managers at the Coca-Cola plant in Bogotá attempted to get workers to sign a statement saying Coke did not violate human rights; a week later the leader of the union received a death threat against himself and his family.