Atlanta, Georgia – Activists from the U.S. and Colombia are targeting the World of Coca-Cola museum, located near its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, accusing the company of “union busting”, paying its workers “poverty wages”, and engaging in environmentally destructive practices.
“We’re an unofficial coalition with the India Resource Center, focusing on Coca-Cola overusing waters in drought areas. We’re supporting Corporate Accountability International, that have been trying to stop the use of bottled water over tap water,” Lew Friedman, of Killer Coke, told IPS.
“We’re working on behalf of Sinaltrainal, the food workers in Colombia. They had eight union leaders murdered. We’ve been augmenting their legal suit,” Friedman said.
“There’s plenty of evidence that shows the plant managers were very cozy with the paramilitaries,” he added.
Sinaltrainal v. Coca-Cola was filed in 2001 by the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of the Colombian trade union Sinaltrainal, several of its members, and the estate of Isidro Gil, one of its officers who was murdered.
Coca-Cola bottlers “contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilize extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders”, the lawsuit states.
In addition, Killer Coke claims that many of the Colombian paramilitary troops were trained at the controversial formerly-named School of the Americas, now called the U.S. Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Economic Cooperation, in Fort Benning, Georgia.
In 2003, the U.S. District Court removed Coca-Cola as a defendant in the case because the murders took place in Colombia, not in the U.S. However, two Coca-Cola bottlers remained as defendants in the case. In 2006, the judge dismissed the remaining claims.
When IPS asked Coca-Cola about Killer Coke’s demonstration in Atlanta last week, the company replied in an email statement that it “was based on an uninformed and inaccurate portrayal of The Coca-Cola Company and independent Coca-Cola bottlers in Colombia and based on allegations that are over ten years old”.
“The unfounded allegations have been reviewed over the years by multiple courts in Colombia and most recently in the United States, as well as by the International Labor Organization, and outside law firms – all concluding that the Coca-Cola bottler employees in Colombia enjoy extensive, normal relations with multiple unions and are provided with safe working conditions there,” Coca-Cola said.
While much of Killer Coke’s focus seemed to be on the Colombian trade union issue, activists said other issues involved the alleged use of child labour in other countries and questions about the healthiness of Coca-Cola products in general.
“There are issues of health, the use of high fructose corn syrup,” Friedman said.
As part of their campaign, Killer Coke has been successful at getting over 50 U.S. colleges and universities to stop selling Coke, and at getting the Service Employee Industrial Union (SEIU) and teachers’ unions to stop carrying Coke in their offices.
Killer Coke decided to target Coca-Cola headquarters on its own turf, in Atlanta, in part by driving a mobile billboard around town that read, “Don’t Drink Killer Coke Zero: Zero Ethics, Zero Justice, Zero Health.” This is a pun on one of the company’s products, Coke Zero, which is a near-zero calorie beverage.
“The World of Coke is basically one large advertisement for Coca-Cola. It’s the centre of Coca-Cola, it’s a mile away from their headquarters, it’s basically their public image that’s there,” said Ian Hoffmann, a young activist from Minnesota.
“We’ve got people coming forward and saying it’s an anti-union company. Coca-Cola usually says ‘we’re an Atlanta-based company. What happens in Colombia is out of our control, and more importantly, not our responsibility’, even though they [the bottling plants] are bottling Coca-Cola products and helping the company with huge profits,” Hoffmann said.
“We want some accountability. From my end, I’d like them to acknowledge what’s going on there, explaining to us why after the union leader gets shot dead, that the next day no one signs a new contract with Sinaltrainal. How do they stand by that? How do you defend that?” Hoffmann said.
“If these are people that are working, bottling Coca-Cola products, how is it okay for this company to stand by and not take some kind of action?” Hoffmann said. “How could this be happening at Coca-Cola with management turning a blind eye?”
Hoffmann acknowledged it is difficult going up against a multinational corporation like Coca-Cola. “It’s usually difficult because of the brand name. They have forced their way into every American fridge. The money they spend to get their name out and marketing to children. It’s a Coke culture, you know, starting out with those ads with Santa Claus.”
At a protest last week, activists chanted slogans and played a recording of a contemporary folk song called, “Coke is the Drink of the Death Squads”.
They came from all over the U.S., including states like Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota, as well as Washington, DC. Groups like Witness for Peace and School of the Americas Watch were also represented.
Martha Giraldo, 31, of Colombia, charged Coca-Cola’s bottling plants with “using temp [temporary] workers on contracts three months or less long, and they don’t pay a just wage, exterminating labour leaders, violating our Constitutional right to be unionised. In Colombia, we’re in a human rights crisis.”
Giraldo and another speaker spoke to the mostly English-speaking audience through a translator.
“People are marginalised in large cities of our country. We’re all suffering a humanitarian crisis. It’s not true what [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton says when she says in Colombia we’re safe and live in peace. It’s only for some, large landowners and the paramilitary; the rest are marginalised for denouncing it. We are being accused of being guerrilla supporters,” Giraldo said.
“In Colombia there are four million internally displaced people, who’ve been driven off their land because of terror campaigns of the paramilitary,” Giraldo said. “In addition to fumigating coca crops and food crops and water sources we use to drink, approximately 30,000 people disappeared in Colombia. We don’t know where they are. It’s been years since they disappeared.”
“We’re here in front of one of the symbols of capitalism. This company represents one of the perverse ways of accumulating capital. We’re here to demonstrate on behalf of our dead brothers,” said Gerardo Caja Marca in a speech at the rally.
“They systematically violate human rights in Colombia. All workers have the right and obligation to defend their rights. Simply exercising those rights has cost the lives of workers in Colombia,” Caja Marca said.
“Lastly we came here to demand justice. These are the men of war. These are the ones who put seven US military bases in Colombia. These are the ones who create paramilitaries. We accuse Coca-Cola of financing assassins. We want truth and reparations,” Caja Marca said.