Stop Killer Coke!
Death squads have assassinated
eight trade union leaders in Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia.
The Stop Killer Coke campaign holds the beverage giant responsible.
by Madeline Baran
Dollars and Sense magazine,
On the morning of December 5, 1996, two
members of a paramilitary gang drove a motorcycle to the Carepa
Coca-Cola bottling plant in northern Colombia. They fired 10 shots
at worker and union activist Isidro Segundo Gil, killing him.
Luis Adolso Cardona, a fellow worker, witnessed the assassination.
"I was working and I heard the gun shots and then I saw Isidro
Gil falling," he said in a recent interview. "I ran,
but when I got there Isidro was already dead."
A few hours later, paramilitary officials
detained Cardona, but he escaped, fleeing to the police office,
where he received protection. Around midnight that night, the
paramilitaries looted the local union office and set it on fire.
"There was nothing left. Only the walls," said Cardona.
The paramilitary group returned to the plant the next week, lined
up the 60 unionized workers, and ordered them to sign a prepared
letter of resignation from the union. Everyone did. Two months
later, all the workers-including those who had never belonged
to the union-were fired. Gil, 27, had worked at the plant for
eight years. His wife, Alcira Gil, protested her husband's killing
and demanded reparations from Coca-Cola. She was killed by paramilitaries
in 2000, leaving their two daughters orphaned. A Colombian judge
later dropped the charges against Gil's alleged killers. Paramilitaries,
violent right-wing forces composed of professional soldiers and
common thugs, maintain bases at several Coca-Cola bottling facilities
in Colombia, allegedly to protect the bottlers from left-wing
militants who might target the plants as symbols of globalization.
Activists say at least eight union activists
have been killed by paramilitaries at Colombian Coca-Cola facilities
since 1989. And plaintiffs in a recent series of lawsuits hold
CocaCola and two of its bottlers responsible for the violence,
alleging "systematic intimidation, kidnapping, detention,
and murder of trade unionists in Colombia, South America at the
hands of paramilitaries working as agents of corporations doing
business in that country."
The murders of Coke bottling workers are
part of a larger pattern of anti-union violence in Colombia. Since
1986, over 3,800 trade unionists have been murdered in the country,
making it the most dangerous place to organize in the world. Three
out of every five people killed worldwide for trade union activities
are from Colombia.
SUING COKE AND ITS BOTTLERS
The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization
International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) and the United Steel Workers
of America filed four lawsuits in Federal District Court in July
2001 on behalf of Sinaltrainal (a union representing food and
beverage workers in Colombia), five individuals who have been
tortured or unlawfully detained for union activities, and the
estate of murdered union activist Isidro Gil. The plaintiffs contend
Coca-Cola bottlers "contracted with or otherwise directed
paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and
murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained, or otherwise silenced
trade union leaders."
In addition to demanding that Coca-Cola
take responsibility for the murder of Colombian union activists,
the plaintiffs are asking for compensatory and punitive damages,
which by some estimates could range from $50 million to $6 billion.
Coca-Cola's legal defense "is not
that the murder and terrorism of trade unionists did not occur,"
according to an ILRF press release. The company argues that it
cannot be held liable in a U.S. federal court for events outside
the United States. "Coca-Cola also argues that it does not
'own,' and therefore does not control, the bottling plants in
In late March, a judge dismissed Coca-Cola
from the lawsuits-on grounds that the firm does not have control
over the labor practices of its bottlers-but allowed the case
against the bottlers to go forward. A request for an appeal is
According to Daniel Kovalik, assistant
general counsel for the United Steelworkers of America and co-counsel
for the plaintiffs: "In the short run, [the court decision]
means that we can't proceed against Coke, but it doesn't necessarily
mean that in the long run. I am absolutely confident that we'll
win the appeal."
Kovalik maintains that Coca-Cola is liable
for its bottlers' actions. For one thing, the 20 Colombia bottlers
are deeply entwined in Coke's core economic activities. Coca-Cola
provides syrup to the bottlers, who mix, bottle, package, and
ship the drinks to wholesalers and retailers throughout Colombia.
The bottlers are integral to the beverage giant's operations in
Moreover, Coca-Cola and its bottlers have
deep financial links. In May, Coca-Cola FEMSA, a bottling company,
acquired Pan American Beverages, Latin America's largest bottler
and a defendant in the case. In the year before it was acquired,
sales of Coca-Cola represented 89% of Pan American's $2.35 billion
net sales. The acquisition made Mexico-based Coca-Cola FEMSA the
largest Coca-Cola bottler in Latin America. The Coca-Cola Company
owns a 30% equity stake in Coca-Cola FEMSA, according to the bottling
company, and several of its executives also work for Coke.
The plaintiffs are now considering whether
to add CocaCola FEMSA as a defendant in the lawsuits. If they
do, CocaCola will be put in the uncomfortable position of trying
to prove that Coca-Cola FEMSA and the Coca-Cola Company-despite
their shared name, shared executives, and Coke's part-ownership
of FEMSA-are completely independent from one another.
Coca-Cola did not return calls for comment,
but has stated in the past that Pan American Beverages was an
independent company. More recently, Coca-Cola has denied allegations
that its bottlers tolerate or assist in acts of violence against
union activists. In a statement released in July, CocaCola said
the allegations are "nothing more than a shameless effort
to generate publicity using the name of our Company, its trademark
Kovalik argues that the corporation's
communications with shareholders contradict these public statements
and suggest that the firm in fact can, and should, investigate
and put a stop to the killings. He plans to submit Coca-Cola documents
as legal evidence, including a letter to a shareholder that reads:
"We require that everyone within the Coca-Cola system abide
by the laws and regulations of the countries in which they do
business. We demand integrity and honesty in business at the Coca-Cola
"They can't be able to profit from
these bottlers and say that they don't have control over these
situations," says Kovalik.
TAKING DOWN A CORPORATE GIANT
The Stop Killer Coke campaign may prove
to be the biggest test yet of the corporate campaign model pioneered
by labor consultant Ray Rogers (see "Ray Rogers' Corporate
Campaign Strategy"). As the public face of the ILRF lawsuits,
the Stop Killer Coke campaign aims to put public pressure on Coca-Cola
to acknowledge its role in the killings and to persuade the company
to stop collaborating with violent paramilitary organizations.
It's one part of a massive coalition gearing
up for a multi-front attack on Coca-Cola. The anti-Coke effort,
launched by the lawsuits against Coca-Cola and its bottlers, has
grown to include the Stop Killer Coke campaign, consumer and student
groups, and labor organizations like the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO.
These various groups share the same primary goal: to damage the
soft-drink giant's reputation in order to force the company to
acknowledge its role in the Colombian killings. With the launch
of the Stop Killer Coke campaign this summer, the movement is
picking up momentum.
Rogers plans to expand the campaign far
beyond the plaintiffs' allegations to encompass "at least
a dozen issues" including the lack of health care for Coca-Cola
workers in Africa; the corporation's water use in India, which
causes groundwater destruction; and more. He has spent the last
several months researching Coke's corporate structure and intricate
Rogers often refers to his strategic style
as "divide and conquer" because it aims to isolate companies
from investors, creditors, politicians, and consumers. In the
most successful corporate campaigns, the target corporation's
relationship with the business world breaks down, as other companies,
banks, and executives decide that the benefits of the business
relationship are not worth the risk of being the target of a high-profile
campaign. Eventually, the company, isolated and weak, caves in
to the campaign's demands in order to end the media blitz and
restore its position in the business world.
"A corporation is really nothing
more than a coalition of individual and institutional economic
and political interests, some more vital and vulnerable than others,
that can be challenged and attacked, divided and conquered,"
Rogers said. "I know enough now to know exactly where the
Achilles heel of Coca-Cola is. I'm so confident about where we're
going with this thing."
That Achilles heel appears to be Coke's
relationship with SunTrust Bank, its main creditor. Many of Coca-Cola's
top shareholders own significant amounts of SunTrust stock, and
their boards overlap-three current or former Coke CEOs sit on
SunTrust's board of directors and two current or former SunTrust
CEOs sit on Coke's board. "In almost 30 years of studying
corporate structures, I have never seen a more intimate or incestuous
relationship," said Rogers.
Rogers plans to expose the relations between
SunTrust and Coca-Cola, then use information on Coke's human rights
and environmental practices to drive SunTrust into a financial
and public relations disaster. If the plan works, investors will
lose confidence in SunTrust; key executives will resign rather
than face negative media attention; and unions, progressive groups,
and consumers will close their accounts. Given the deep ties between
the two companies, whatever hurts SunTrust will hurt Coke. Backed
into such a position, Coca-Cola would be forced to acknowledge
and end its ties to paramilitaries in order to stabilize its main
creditor and regain investor and consumer confidence.
The campaign faces an uphill battle. Coca-Cola
has virtually unlimited resources to fight lawsuits and conduct
its own media blitz. Also, Coca-Cola, like most major companies,
now has years of experience fighting high-profile consumer campaigns.
The beverage giant has a truly global reach, producing over 300
brands in more than 200 countries, with more than 70% of its income
coming from outside the United States. If the campaign hopes to
damage Coca-Cola financially, it will have to attract international
Despite these serious obstacles, Rogers
is optimistic. "We're going to move very quickly on this
thing," he said. "I think they're going to find themselves
involved in something that they're going to find a total nightmare."
Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the ILRF, is also confident.
"Ray's like the classic pit bull," he said. "Once
he bites into you, he won't let go. Ray's not going to walk away
from this until he's won."
The battle is already heating up, with
activists in Latin America, Turkey, Ireland, and Australia leading
anti-Coke campaigns with Stop Killer Coke materials. Student organizations
like United Students Against Sweatshops are starting campaigns
to ban Coke from campuses. University College Dublin, Ireland's
largest university, voted recently to remove all Coca-Cola products
from the campus. Meanwhile, Bard College in New York has decided
against renewing Coke's contract with the school when it expires
in May. At Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, students staged a "Coke
dump," spilling soda into the streets to call attention to
the plight of Colombian union activists. Union involvement is
also growing. United Auto Workers Local 22 in Detroit, recently
ordered 4,000 "Coke Float" flyers, which explain the
campaign. The union will hand them out to workers as they leave
In the meantime, violence against union
activists in Colombia continues. On September 10,2003, David Jose
Carranza Calle, the 15-year-old son of Sinaltrainal's national
director, was kidnapped by paramilitaries. According to Sinaltrainal,
four masked men forced the younger Carranza into a truck and tortured
him, asking for the whereabouts of his father At the same time,
his father, Limberto Carranza, received a phone call from an unidentified
individual who said, "Unionist son of a bitch, we are going
to break you. And if you won't break, we will attack your home."
The kidnappers freed Carranza Calle over three hours later. But
unionists in Colombian bottling plants, including Coca-Cola facilities,
are far from safe.
For more information on the Coca-Cola
campaign, go to <www. killercoke.org>.
Madeleine Baran is a freelance writer
and a graduate student at New York University's Graduate School
Transnational Corporations and Third World