"Killer Coke" Or Innocent Abroad? January 23, 2006
Bottling Coke and Spilling Blood November 11, 2003
Coca-Cola avoids lawsuit over labor leader's murder May 12, 2003
Coke Targeted In Union Lawsuit Case Marks Unusual Effort To Aid Labor In Colombia April 29, 2003
"Killer Coke" Or Innocent Abroad?; Controversy over anti-union violence in Colombia has colleges banning Coca-Cola
January 23, 2006
Pg. 46 Vol. 3968
By Dean Foust and Geri Smith, with Elizabeth Woyke in New York
It's early monday morning, but Ray Rogers has the full attention of some 70 students in a Rutgers University classroom. For nearly half an hour, the 61-year-old labor activist rails against Coca-Cola Co., taking the beverage giant to task for allegedly turning a blind eye as eight employees of Coke bottlers in Colombia were killed and scores more were threatened or jailed on trumped-up terrorism charges over the past decade.
``The reality is that the world of Coca-Cola is a world of lies, deceptions, corruption, gross human rights and environmental abuses!'' thunders Rogers, a legendary union activist who cut his teeth organizing a highly publicized campaign against textile maker J.P. Stevens & Co. in the 1970s. He slams his hand on a desk. ``But this is where it's going to stop! We're going to put an end to this once and for all! How many of you will stand up against Coke?'' One by one, roughly half the students lift their hands. In response to Rogers' charges, a Coke spokeswoman says the activist ``has no facts to support his claims.''
Despite the vast generation gap and Coke's rebuttals, Rogers' diatribes are starting to resonate on campuses from New Haven to Ann Arbor, where his ``Killer Coke'' campaign has become the latest cause celebre among student activists -- ``the new Nike,'' as one puts it. At dozens of schools, small but feisty groups of students have demonstrated against the company -- like the ones who staged a ``die-in'' during a 2004 Yale University speech by then-CEO Douglas N. Daft. Already, about 20 colleges in the U.S. and abroad have halted sales of Coke on campus, in part over the Colombia controversy.
In December, Rogers bagged his two biggest victories to date when New York University and the University of Michigan banished Coke. For two years, NYU student activists had demanded an independent investigation of worker conditions in Colombia. ``The students felt it has been two years, and nothing's been done,'' says Arthur Tannenbaum, a faculty spokesman at NYU. In response, a Coke spokesperson says the company would accept an outside review, but only if the findings aren't admissible in a lawsuit filed in Miami by the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of the slain Colombian workers -- a condition the ILRF has not accepted.
PICKING UP STEAM
Coke officials maintain that the company has been unfairly tarred by union activists who have distorted the facts about Colombia. Perpetuating ``urban myth is more exciting [for activists] than knowing what the facts are,'' says Edward E. Potter, a longtime corporate labor lawyer who joined Coke as global labor relations director last March. Coke officials say only one of the eight workers was killed on the premises of the Coke bottling plant owned by Bebidas y Alimentos de Uraba. Also, they say, the other deaths -- which all occurred off-premises -- were byproducts of Colombia's four-decade-long civil war among leftist guerrillas, government forces, and paramilitaries, which has resulted in at least 35,000 deaths, including 2,500 trade unionists since the mid-1980s alone.
What's more, an important global coalition of labor unions has refused to support Rogers' anti-Coke crusade, which seeks reparations for the families of victims. ``We have no evidence of complicity by Coke in the killing of workers,'' says Ron Oswald, general secretary of the International Union of Foodworkers in Geneva, whose members include tens of thousands of Coke workers worldwide. Some government and union leaders believe that the militant union leading the crusade, SINALTRAINAL, a Colombian union of food-industry workers known for its socialist views, has zeroed in on Coke as a way to get the broader issue of union violence heard around the world. ``Out of one killing they built up a campaign,'' says Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderon. ``In the end they're hurting Colombia'' by making it seem like a dangerous place to do business.
Still, Rogers seems to be picking up steam. The activist says he has been contacted by students at more than 100 other colleges looking to initiate similar protests, including Washington's Georgetown University and Atlanta's Emory University, whose endowment includes large holdings of Coca-Cola stock. Rogers also believes he can score a win in Britain in the coming months when the National Union of Students, a purchasing co-op for more than 200 student unions there, debates whether to renew Coke's beverage contract.
The college deals -- collectively worth perhaps a few million dollars -- represent a negligible loss of business for the $23 billion soft-drink titan, which now generates 85% of its operating income outside the U.S. But the campaign is heating up at an awkward moment for Coca-Cola, which was recently eclipsed by PepsiCo in market value. Plus, Coke is pinning a revival on a new marketing plan set to launch in the spring around the theme ``Welcome to the Coke Side of Life.'' ``I know the impact we're having on Coke, and I know it's getting worse,'' says Rogers.
Beyond bad PR, the Colombia controversy illustrates the challenges facing all multinationals that do business in unstable places. As Nike Inc. learned in its recent sweatshop labor flap, companies are increasingly being held accountable for everything that occurs all the way through the supply chain, even when it involves independent contractors, as is the case with Coke and its Colombian bottlers. In the end, some crisis-management experts believe Coke may be able to defuse the Colombia situation only by consenting, as Nike did, to an outside review, and by taking public steps to better ensure the safety of bottling company workers in countries such as Colombia. ``You just can't...say: 'They're the bottlers, we just sell the syrup,''' says Edward F. Ahnert, a former president of ExxonMobil Foundation who teaches corporate social responsibility at Southern Methodist University's business school.
BREAKING THE UNION
What has transpired in Colombia over the past decade is a matter of debate. According to union leaders from SINALTRAINAL, on whose behalf the 2001 Miami lawsuit was filed, several years of violence and killings of Coke workers intensified on Dec. 5, 1996, when a right-wing paramilitary squad showed up at the gate of the Coke bottling plant owned by Bebidas y Alimentos in Carepa, a small town in northwestern Colombia's banana-growing region. The paramilitaries shot and killed Isidro Segundo Gil, the gatekeeper and a member of the union's executive board. An hour later they kidnapped another union leader at his home and torched the union's offices.
The following day the paramilitaries returned to the plant, called workers together, and gave them until 4 p.m. to sign a statement resigning from the union on stationery the unionists claim bore the bottler's letterhead -- or else. Many union members resigned on the spot; 27 even quit their jobs and fled to other cities, fearing they would be killed if they stayed. Luis Hernan Manco, who was president of the union at the time, was summoned by the plant manager to a local tavern, where several paramilitaries warned him and other union leaders to leave town. ``They said: 'If you want to live beyond today, get out of this area.' I knew they were serious,'' recalls Manco, now 59, who has been in hiding for nine years. For two more months, union leaders claim, the paramilitaries camped outside the front gate of the Carepa plant.
The union alleges that Coke and its local bottler were complicit in these acts. (Both companies deny the charge.) Among the claims made in the lawsuit is an alleged 1996 public statement by Ariosto Milan Mosquera, the plant manager at Carepa, that ``he had given an order to the paramilitaries to carry out the task of destroying the union.'' (The plant's owner, Richard Kirby of Key Biscayne, Fla., denies his managers gave any such orders.) Over the intervening nine years, in addition to the eight who died, 48 others have been forced into hiding, and 65 have received death threats, SINALTRAINAL leaders say. In Bucaramanga, a midsize city in northeastern Colombia, five union members who work at the Coke plant there were jailed for six months in 1995 on terrorism charges that were later dropped for lack of evidence. They were accused of planting an explosive device in the plant, but three of them who spoke to BusinessWeek said they doubt such a device ever existed.
Union leaders insist Coke could have halted the violence by immediately -- and publicly -- repudiating the paramilitaries. ``If the company had condemned the first death, there probably wouldn't have been any more,'' says Edgar Paez, director of international relations for SINALTRAINAL. A Coke spokesman disputes that. ``Our bottlers have been quite open in condemning the violence,'' he says, pointing to local newspaper ads they published that denounced the violence. Paez also claims the Coca-Cola bottler financially benefited from the paramilitaries' actions, since they broke the union and allowed the bottler to replace many of its full-time employees with much cheaper part-time and temporary workers. Plant owner Kirby denies that charge and says he suffered, too: His wife's sister was kidnapped by the paramilitaries, who also burned four of his trucks and tried to coerce Kirby into selling his plant to them on the cheap, which he declined to do. ``Nobody tells the paramilitaries what to do. They tell you,'' he says.
There's no clear path for Coke to mitigate the controversy. Nike, after its initial reluctance to engage its critics, was able to resolve the allegations that it used sweatshop labor; the sneaker giant imposed tougher workplace standards on its suppliers and invited outside groups to help monitor their compliance. In April, Coke released the results of a study by Cal Safety Compliance Corp., a Los Angeles consultant that specializes in workplace audits, which found no current instances of anti-union violence or intimidation at Coke bottling plants in Colombia. But union activists and students were unmoved, since Coke had paid for the study, and demanded that the company agree to an independent investigation of its Colombian operations. At first, Coke said yes, but the plan hit an impasse over the findings' admissibility in the ongoing lawsuit, from which Coke was dropped as a defendant by the judge in 2003. (The bottlers remain defendants.)
Activist Rogers is demanding that Coke pay reparations to the families of the slain and displaced Colombian workers, noting that the company came up with $192.5 million to settle a racial-discrimination class action in the U.S. in 2000. In Bogota, SINALTRAINAL's Paez says each survivor should get regular payments equal to the monthly salary received by Coke's CEO. ``What is a life worth?'' he asks. A Coke spokeswoman responds: ``We were not complicit in what happened, so it wouldn't make sense for us to pay reparations.'' But for Coke, resolving the legal questions and diffusing the Colombia controversy may be two different things.
Coca-Cola In Colombia: A Timeline
JULY 30, 1990
First Coke bottling-plant worker in Colombia killed, with a shot to the head, during a strike for better working conditions in Narino, in the southwest. The victim was on the local union board of directors.
Three more Coke workers killed, all of whom were employed at the Carepa plant in northwestern Colombia.
DEC. 5, 1996
Right-wing paramilitaries storm the Carepa plant, killing a worker, then kidnap a union leader from his home and torch the union's offices. They return to the plant the next day, demanding that workers sign a statement resigning from the union -- or else -- and order top union leaders to leave town ``if you want to live beyond today.''
JULY 20, 2001
The United Steelworkers and the International Labor Rights Fund file suit in Miami on behalf of the SINALTRAINAL union in Colombia, naming Coca-Cola and two of its Colombian bottlers as defendants. A judge later dropped Coke from the suit, leaving the bottlers as defendants.
APR. 16, 2003
Labor activist Ray Rogers launches his ``Killer Coke'' campaign at Coca-Cola's annual meeting in Houston. Months later, Bard College in New York becomes the first U.S. school to not renew its beverage contract with Coke because of the controversy.
APR. 13, 2005
Coca-Cola releases a study it commissioned by consultant Cal Safety Compliance that found no instances of anti-union violence or intimidation at Coke bottling plants in Colombia.
New York University and the University of Michigan become the latest colleges in the U.S. and abroad to ban Coke products from their campuses.
Bottling Coke and Spilling Blood
Daily News (New York)
November 11, 2003, Tuesday
By Juan Gonzalez
Coca-Cola may say it's The Real Thing, but workers at Coke bottling plants in violence-torn Colombia call it the Real Dead Thing.
Just ask Juan Carlos Galvis. He's a leader of Colombia's national food workers union, which represents employees at about a dozen Coca-Cola bottling plants throughout the country.
In a federal suit Galvis filed in Miami two years ago against Atlanta-based Coke and several of its Colombian bottling partners, the union said that at least six of its leaders have been murdered since 1989 by death squads, which it claims secretly worked for local Coca-Cola plant managers.
Colombia is the murder capital of the world. A 40-year-old civil war, a decades-long government campaign against drug traffickers and an infamously brutal military have led to near anarchy and more than 35,000 deaths.
But few people realize that Colombia is an especially notorious killing field for union leaders.
Some 213 trade union leaders were murdered worldwide in 2002, according to the London-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.
Of those, 184 died in Colombia.
Since 1986, nearly 4,000 Colombia union leaders have been assassinated - including 400 from the national teachers union alone. Virtually none of the killers have been brought to justice.
Juan Luis Londono, Colombia's minister of social protection, admitted earlier this year that the murders of union leaders are an "international disaster." The government has resorted to paying for bodyguards for hundreds of labor leaders whose lives are threatened.
Labor leaders and human rights organizations say most killings of union leaders are carried out by right-wing death squads secretly working for companies that wish to get rid of their unions.
Carlos Castano, the head of Colombia's largest death squad, has publicly boasted of his efforts.
"Trade unionists prevent people from working. It is for that reason that we kill them," Castano said in a June 2001 magazine interview. At the time, Castano was on the run after several murder convictions in Colombia. He has since been indicted in the U.S. for drug trafficking.
One of those targeted for death by Castano's group was Coca-Cola union leader Juan Carlos Galvis. On Aug. 22 Galvis narrowly escaped when two men in a motorcycle opened fire on his car. Fortunately, Galvis' government-paid bodyguards drove off the assassins.
"This happened in broad daylight outside a public school as students were leaving the building," Galvis said last week during a visit to New York. "I'm just grateful none of those children was hurt."
Some of his union brothers have not been so lucky.
In April 1994, Jose Eleazar Manco and Luis Enrique Gomez, members of a local at another Coca-Cola bottling plant in the town of Carepa, were murdered.
Then, in September 1996, union leaders complained to Coca-Cola and to its two main bottling companies in Colombia - Panamco and Bebidas Y Alimentos de Uraba - that plant managers were employing death squads.
According to the Miami suit, less than three months later, on Dec. 5, 1996, assailants shot dead union leader Isidro Segundo Gil at the entrance of the Carepa plant during contract negotiations, then set fire to the union hall.
Two days later, the killers returned to the factory and assembled the workers at gunpoint.
"The paramilitaries explained that the workers had the option of either resigning from the union or leaving Carepa altogether lest they be killed," the suit stated.
The workers resigned en masse.
The charges made by the union "are completely false," said Coca-Cola spokeswoman Lori Billingsley. "They are nothing more than a shameless effort to generate publicity using the name of our company."
Last March, U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez dismissed any allegations against Coca-Cola but ruled that the charges against Coke's bottling partners Panamco and Bebidas Y Alimentos could go to trial in Miami.
"If Coke tells the Colombian bottlers to do something, you can bet they do it," said Terry Collingsworth, the Miami lawyer for the Colombia union, which is appealing the dismissal of the charges against Coke.
Collingsworth noted that key directors of Coca-Cola sit on the board of directors of Panamco, and that Coke's major bottling subsidiary in Mexico, whose largest shareholder is Coca-Cola, recently purchased Panamco outright.
Panamco has protested the judge's decision to allow the case to proceed to trial, arguing that it cannot be tried in an American court for alleged violations in Colombia.
Coca-Cola insists that it protects workers' rights wherever the company operates.
"We feel that this is just the beginning of a process that will lead to a dismissal [of the suit] against our bottling partners," Billingsley said.
Meantime, Coca-Cola's Colombian union leaders have called for a worldwide boycott of Coke products until the Atlanta-based giant stops the killings and violence at its bottling plants.
Already some key U.S. unions, like the United Steel Workers, have joined the call. And that's the real thing.
Coca-Cola avoids lawsuit over labor leader's murder
Civil RICO Report
May 12, 2003
Vol. 19, No. 1
A foreign labor union and the estate of a murdered labor leader could not sue a United States company under the RICO Act because the alleged wrongdoing either occurred in the United States but was too removed from the alleged injury or occurred abroad but did not have a substantial effect within the United States. (Sinaltrainal v. The Coca-Cola Co., et al., No. 01-3208-CIV-Martinez/Dube (S.D. Fla. 03/31/03).)
Isidro Segundo Gil was an employee of Bebidas y Alimentos, a Colombian company that served as one of The Coca-Cola Co.'s bottlers in the South American country. Bebida's owner, Richard I. Kirby, resided in Key Biscayne, Fla., and ran the company's day-to-day operations from there, leaving the bottling plant's direct supervision to his son, Richard Kirby Kielland.
In mid-1995, a local of the Sinaltrainal labor union voted Gil as their president, and he began efforts to organize Bebidas' workers into a collective bargaining group. Gil's efforts coincided with a time of deep civil disorder in Colombia, which was plagued by vicious infighting between leftist guerilla groups, drug cartel lords, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the government's own armed forces. Labor unions like Sinaltrainal became closely identified in the public's consciousness with the leftist groups and, as a result, government and paramilitary forces often targeted their leaders.
Gil approached Kielland with a several union requests, but Kielland refused. Instead, Kielland hired a manager with paramilitary ties to oversee the plant. The manager allowed paramilitary members access to the plant and began a public intimidation scheme to drive away the union. After Gil complained to Coca-Cola Colombia about the manager's activities, two paramilitary members shot and killed the union leader. Sinaltrainal's local chapter collapsed in the aftermath of the murder.
Arguing that Kirby, Kielland, Bebibas, Coca-Cola Colombia, and Coca-Cola were alter egos of each other because of their corporate structure and business relations, Sinaltrainal and Gil's estate sued them for aiding and abetting the paramilitary's murder of Gil. They alleged violations of the Alien Tort Claims Act, the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, state, federal and Colombian law, and the RICO Act. Coca-Cola moved for dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on all claims.
After knocking down Sinaltrainal's ATCA and TVPA claims, the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida tackled the RICO issue. As the court noted, court have not interpreted RICO's generally broad construction to include "international schemes largely unrelated to the United States." Nonetheless, the court said, a relation may arise if the claimant can prove that the alleged wrongdoing either was conducted in the United States and caused an injury abroad or was conducted abroad but had substantial effects in the United States. To meet this standard, however, "mere preparatory activities, and conduct far removed from the [injury], will not suffice to establish jurisdiction," the court said. The court also cautioned against applying United States law to foreign parties where the alleged conduct has only indirect or remote effects here.
In the District Court's view, Sinaltrainal failed to allege any conduct satisfying either test. Besides the general RICO violation claims, the labor union failed to establish that the alleged foreign conduct had any substantial effect in the United States, the court said. Additionally, the complaint did not contain allegations of improper activity or tortious conduct committed within the United States, the court explained. Accordingly, the court determined that the events occurring within the United States were either too removed from the alleged injury or were preparatory in nature and failed to establish the court's jurisdiction to hear the RICO claim. Therefore, the court granted Coca-Cola's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Coke Targeted In Union Lawsuit Case Marks Unusual Effort To Aid Labor In Colombia
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania)
April 29, 2003 Tuesday
On Dec. 5, 1996, paramilitary gunmen entered a Coca-Cola bottling plant in northwestern Colombia and asked for 36-year-old Isidro Gil, a labor union leader who was trying to win a contract for the workers there.
They found him. Then they shot him seven times.
Seven years later, a Pittsburgh labor lawyer is representing Gil's estate and suing two of the Coca-Cola Co.'s Colombian bottlers in an American court seeking redress.
It's a novel attempt to bring the American justice system to bear on human rights violators in Colombia, where more than 1,800 union leaders have been murdered over the past dozen years.
It's also an attention-getting effort to punish Coke, which was dismissed as a defendant March 31, and put multinational corporations on notice that they could be dragged into U.S. courts if they appear to condone violence to break unions in the developing world.
"We view the lawsuit as quite crucial to the struggle to bring peace to Colombia," said Daniel Kovalik, an attorney for the United Steelworkers of America, which has lent his services to the plaintiffs' legal team.
Kovalik and his clients, all affiliated with Colombia's Sinaltrainal labor union, got a taste of both victory and defeat in a March 31 ruling in the case, which is being heard in Miami.
Federal Judge Jose E. Martinez allowed the case to go forward against two Coca-Cola bottlers: Bebidas y Alimentos and Panamerican Beverages, but not against Coke itself, saying the company does not set labor policies at independently owned bottling plants. Kovalik's team has asked Martinez to reconsider. So have the bottlers, who want the case thrown out altogether.
The lawsuit alleges that Bebidas y Alimentos conspired with a right-wing paramilitary army to murder Gil and break the Sinaltrainal union at the company's bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia. It says the plant operates "under the control and authority" of Coca-Cola.
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman declined comment. But the company calls the allegations "false" and "baseless" on its Web site, which goes on to say, "Because Colombia is in such turmoil, the Coca-Cola Co. and its local bottling partners have prioritized the safety and security of all employees and labor union officials."
The lawsuit alleges that Ariosto Mosquera, the Bebidas plant manager at the time, invited paramilitary soldiers into the bottling facility to "exterminate the trade union."
James McDonald, attorney for Bebidas, said Mosquera resigned from the plant two days before the Dec. 5, 1996, murder. "You read the [lawsuit]; it's fiction," McDonald said. "[Mosquera's resignation] completely breaks the link between the killing and Bebidas."
Hours after Gil's murder, paramilitary troops set fire to the Sinaltrainal office in Carepa. Two days later, a paramilitary squad entered the plant and forced the workers, under threat of death, to terminate their union memberships on the spot.
The episode was more emblematic than exceptional in a country where privately organized paramilitary units kill union leaders with alarming frequency.
"To be a trade unionist in Colombia is to have one foot in this world and one in the next," Kovalik said.
The most recent State Department's Human Rights Report for Colombia, released March 31, noted: "Paramilitaries continued to commit numerous unlawful and political killings, particularly of labor leaders, often kidnapping and torturing suspected guerrilla sympathizers prior to executing them."
'Wake-up call' for Coke
Formed in the 1980s by Colombian ranchers to supplement the army, right-wing paramilitaries view the labor movement as part of the leftist rebellion that has waged a 40-year civil war in Colombia.
The country's judicial system, which itself has been frequently attacked, has seldom interfered. Among the 1,875 murders of union leaders that have bloodied the Colombian landscape since 1991, convictions have been obtained in only five cases.
The Gil murder, like almost all the others, has gone unpunished.
According to the State Department, "Impunity [remains] at the core of the country's human rights problems. The civilian judiciary [is ] inefficient, severely overburdened by a large case backlog, and undermined by corruption and intimidation."
Javier Correa, president of the Sinaltrainal union, met with Kovalik in Pittsburgh earlier this month. He said a monetary award in a U.S. court might discourage attacks on unionists in his country. "I hope that as a result of this case, the truth about Colombia becomes known," he said.
The Gil estate and the unionists are suing under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreigners to sue in U.S. court for violations of international law.
Such a violation may exist in this case, Judge Martinez ruled, because paramilitaries often coordinate their activities with the Colombian government.
To sue under the Alien Tort Claims Act, it is also essential that defendants have ties to the United States, Kovalik said. Although the claims against Coca-Cola have been dismissed, ties to the United States remain, since the Bebidas bottler is owned by a Florida family.
With a foothold in federal court obtained through the alien act, the plaintiffs are also suing under the Torture Victim Protection Act.
"It's an important precedent to show that U.S. companies can be sued for abuses they commit in other countries," Kovalik said.
Robin Kirk, Colombia expert for the New York City-based Human Rights Watch, has been monitoring the case.
"I think this has been a wake-up call for Coca-Cola," Kirk said. "It certainly can't look the other way. It has to look very closely at its bottlers.
"The fact that corporations are concerned about their reputations means that they have to take these allegations more seriously."
Coca-Cola, in its statement, said it is now providing personal bodyguards and armored vehicles to union officials at some of its bottling plants in Colombia.
Kirk fears, though, that the case won't command much public attention now that Coca-Cola is no longer a defendant. Major regional newspapers, such as The Miami Herald and The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, have been covering the case.
Kovalik hopes Martinez will re-install Coke as a defendant and is anticipating his next trip to Colombia, where he has already traveled three times to gather evidence.
"There is a lot of hard work ahead," he said. "We have to put proof together to support our allegations."
Key to the case will be proving the existence of a conspiracy between Bebidas and the paramilitary troops who killed Gil.
McDonald, the attorney for Bebidas, maintains that the paramilitaries acted independently. "They're a bunch of terrorists," he said.
Complicating matters for Kovalik is the ferocity of the fighting in Colombia's civil war. He doesn't dare travel to Carepa, where battles are frequent.
Correa, who has seen membership in Sinaltrainal drop from 5,600 at the time of Gil's death to 2,400 today, is nevertheless heartened that the Steelworkers are helping his beleaguered union.
"We see we're not alone in our fight," Correa said. "That is why, despite all the difficulties we have encountered, we're going to continue the struggle."