The Real Life Side of Coke

Lesley Gill and Camilo Romero

Posted September 12, 2006

WHEN COCA-COLA premiered its new advertising slogan to television audiences in the United States, it timed the debut to coincide with the Winter Olympics in Italy. The commercial features a young boy enjoying a series of celebrations as he rides his bicycle along a street that stretches across America.

Near the end of his journey, the boy takes a long swig of Coke and contemplates the empty bottle. The new tagline then flashes across the screen – “The Coke Side of Life.”

Produced by the Portland-based Wieden-Kennedy firm – the same agency behind Nike’s iconic commercials – the new advertisement sells the idea that drinking Coke unites Americans, makes them happy, and enables them to live on the positive side of life, where a Coca-Cola is the only beverage option. Yet as company executives prepared to air these spots on American television, officials in at least two Roman municipalities voted to prohibit the Olympic torch from passing through their territories because of allegations that Olympic-sponsor Coca-Cola violates workers’ rights in Colombia.

Coca-Cola is beset with charges of anti-union activities from workers around the globe. Colombian workers accuse company officials of colluding with illegal, right-wing paramilitary groups to murder and terrorize trade unionists. Turkish truck drivers and their families say that they were beaten and tear gassed while peacefully protesting the firing of unionists outside of the offices of a Coca-Cola bottler. And in Peru, Nicaragua, Russia and Chile, workers charge that company officials threaten and dismiss them for attempting to organize unions.

These charges are accompanied by allegations that Coca-Cola is destroying water resources in India (as detailed in the accompanying article by Joe Zacune). Indian farmers and activists claim that the company gave toxic waste material to farmers to use as fertilizer, drained local water supplies through excessive pumping, and polluted ground water by the indiscriminate release of wastewater.

The complaints have resuscitated the Coca-Cola Company’s international image of exploitation and brutality. This image first surfaced in Guatemala, where the murder and repression of trade unionists generated an international uproar in the 1980s, and where workers connected to unions continue to receive death threats.

The Coca-Cola Company displays its darkest side in Colombia. Although some 400 multinational corporations currently operate in this country, Coca-Cola is one of six foreign firms, including Drummond and Occidental Petroleum, with alleged ties to paramilitary organizations. These connections are the subject of a federal lawsuit filed in 2001 in U.S. court by the United Steelworkers on behalf of SINALTRAINAL, the National Food and Beverage Workers’ Union that represents the majority of unionized Coca-Cola workers. The suit charges that the Coca-Cola Company and two of its Colombian bottlers collaborated with paramilitaries to murder and terrorize workers.

An International Movement

The allegations have animated a loosely aligned, international movement that seeks to hold Coca-Cola accountable to workers and the communities in which it operates. The movement links trade unionists, community and labor activists, students, and intellectuals on different continents, and the sheer scope of the charges have complicated Coca-Cola’s effort to develop a uniform strategy to discredit them.

The movement in the United States is most visible on college campuses, where small but savvy groups of students have pressured administrators to cancel or not renew contracts with the multinational. Students now count victories at 16 colleges and universities, including Rutgers University and New York University, and there are active campaigns at many others. Sectors of organized labor have also backed the campaign against Coke.

The Service Employees International Union, the United Steel Workers, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have all endorsed a boycott of Coca-Cola products. In addition, a May vote by the 11,500-member American Anthropological Association to ban Coca-Cola products from its meetings has broadened the drive against Coca-Cola to include college and university professors.

As recent press reports have noted, the movement against Coca-Cola is the largest anti-corporate campaign since the one against Nike in the late 1990s, and this comparison has Coca-Cola officials worried. Corporate spin doctors now make every effort to distinguish the Coca-Cola Company from the sports apparel giant whose sweatshops became a symbol of modern-day slavery and corporate greed.

Referring to activists organized through the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which has played a major role in developing the campaigns against both Nike and Coca-Cola, company spokesperson Kari Bjorhus insists that “students confuse the Nike experience with the Coca-Cola business model.”

Unlike Nike, she says, the Coca-Cola Company is structured around the concerns of ordinary people, and, even though it operates in over 200 countries, the corporation is quintessentially a “local” operation that does not produce goods made by impoverished workers in poor countries for export to affluent consumers in wealthy ones.

Bjorhus explains that Coca-Cola “purchases ingredients locally to meet local tastes,” and “it markets to local people.” It is exquisitely sensitive to local concerns because “what you eat and drink is an intensely personal experience.”

Corporate Offensive

Behind the appeals to a quaint localism, there are other, more important distinctions between Nike and Coca-Cola that corporate officials choose to ignore. After four years of pressure from USAS, the Nike corporation disclosed the location of its factories, improved sanitary conditions in them, and raised workers’ wages slightly. Following initial refusal and foot dragging, it also recognized an independent union representing workers in a Mexican garment factory that contracted with it to make sweatshirts bearing university logos, and negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the union.

Five years after the initiation of the campaign against Coca-Cola in 2001, however, Coca-Cola officials are unwilling to cede anything to critics. The company has gone on the offensive, using its $2.4 billion advertising budget, up 30% since 2004, to counterattack. On campuses with active campaigns against Coke, corporate officials are taking out full-page advertisements in student newspapers to trumpet the company’s labor practices, and they make frequent campus appearances to present their case directly to students and administrators.

Taking a page from Nike’s early play book, Coca-Cola corporate headquarters in Atlanta denies the close connection with its bottlers and distributors in Colombia, where the worst violence against workers occurs. It insists that the bottlers are independent operations, and that Coca-Cola neither owns nor operates factories in Colombia. As the globalization of production makes corporate supply chains more complex and seemingly removed from parent firms, this dubious denial is in fact one that has long been used by many multinational corporations to evade responsibility for workers.

Yet after years of anti-sweatshop activism, most apparel companies, like Nike, now assume a greater level of responsibility for all of the workers in their supply chains. Many universities also state explicitly in their codes of contract that the policies applied to corporations that provide services to the universities also apply to contractors of those corporations.

There is in fact a strikingly close relationship between Coca-Cola and its Colombian bottlers. The corporation requires all bottlers to sign a “Bottler’s Agreement” that gives Coca-Cola the right to evaluate practices and demand changes down to small details. The Agreement includes requirements for employee qualification and appearance.

Applicants for jobs in Colombian plants, for example, fill out standard Coca-Cola application forms, and if hired must dress in uniforms with the Coca-Cola logo.
Coca-Cola also has the right to terminate any bottling relationship for non-compliance with the conditions spelled out in the Agreement. It exercised this right in 1980, when it forced the sale of a Guatemalan franchise to a third party, after unionists and their international supporters linked the franchise owner to attacks against workers.

By so doing, the corporation has demonstrated that it can intervene in the activities of local bottlers and protect the lives of workers if it chooses. Yet the global spread of free-market policies since the end of the Cold War, and the ally that Coca-Cola has found since 2002 in far-right Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, have prompted the corporation to adopt a take-no-prisoners strategy toward independent bottlers and workers in Colombia.

The Coca-Cola Company, like other foreign firms, has taken advantage of the enactment of a neoliberal trade regime by the Colombian government in the early 1990s to restructure production and discipline its labor force. New investment laws and falling tariff barriers have promised national treatment of foreign capital, and government deregulation has permitted higher prices, reduced taxes on the imported brown syrup that forms the basis of the soft drink, and larger package sizes.

Taking Over Local Franchises

In the 1990s, the corporation launched an aggressive campaign to buy out local bottlers whose limited autonomy had long frustrated the desire of Atlanta-based corporate executives for uniform policies and strategies to guide the corporation’s global operations. It purchased family-operated franchises – or drove them out of business – and then dismantled their operations and incorporated them into a few large “anchor bottlers,” which would theoretically produce soft drinks more efficiently and at lower cost for the company’s burgeoning empire.

The Company initially granted Miami-based PANAMCO control over the Colombian market. PANAMCO acquired 17 of the 20 Colombian franchises by the mid-1990s, and then merged with a large Mexican bottler, FEMSA, in 2002. The FEMSA-PANAMCO hybrid is the Coca-Cola Company’s anchor bottler for Latin America, where it controls 40% of sales. The Coca-Cola Company, however, owns 46% of Coca-Cola FEMSA’s voting stock, and several FEMSA board members are also Coca-Cola Company executives.

As Colombian franchises came under PANAMCO and then FEMSA control, jobs disappeared and unproductive plants closed. FEMSA executives shut down production lines in 11 of their 16 bottling facilities and concentrated the manufacture of soft drinks for the domestic market in five Amegaplants in the cities of Bogotá, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Calí, and Medellín. This decision led to the firing or the forced retirement of nearly 3,000 workers, and was facilitated by new labor legislation that granted employers the right to hire workers for limited periods, terminate their services briefly, and then rehire them for another short period, depriving them of job security and benefits.

Resistance and Murder

Not surprisingly, considerable resistance accompanied these transformations, and the opposition of SINALTRAINAL became intertwined with an intensifying civil war that claimed the lives of thousands of unionists, as well as peasants, human rights advocates, left-wing political party members and journalists, who were targeted with particular ferocity by paramilitaries.

The paramilitaries have extensive and well-documented ties to state security forces and they are rarely prosecuted for their crimes. As union leaders have challenged company policies with street demonstrations, hunger strikes and legal maneuvers, local leaders are subjected to arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, and they have confronted an onslaught of threats and assassination attempts directed against them and their family members.

The most dramatic example of the terrorism directed against SINALTRAINAL is the annihilation of the union local in Carepa (Antioquia) and the murder of its president, Isidro Gil, by paramilitaries in 1996. Prior to the attack, workers had observed the plant manager conversing with a paramilitary leader in the company cafeteria, and several workers were receiving threats. SINALTRAINAL sent letters to both the bottling firm Bebidas y Alimentos and Coca-Cola of Colombia, informing them of the intimidation, but neither took any measures to protect threatened unionists.

On December 5, 1996, two paramilitaries riding a high-powered motorcycle shot Gil as he stood in the doorway of the bottling plant. Gil, involved in tense negotiations at the time of his murder, had proposed a contract less than two weeks prior. Several hours later another worker, Luis Adolfo Cardona, barely evaded an attempt on his life, and the entire union directorate was eventually forced out of town.

Paramilitaries subsequently entered the factory and forced rank-and-file unionists to sign letters of resignation that were written on company computers. Then, in 2000, paramilitaries murdered Gil’s wife, who provided information for the case against Coca-Cola, leaving the couple’s two children without parents.

Paramilitary assaults on SINALTRAINAL have not been limited to one region. In the city of Cúcuta in 2000, for example, paramilitaries kidnapped a Coca-Cola worker who had participated in a demonstration against the company.

After workers in Barrancabermeja staged a protest outside the gates of the Coca-Cola plant in 2002, the union vice-president observed plant managers talking to two known paramilitaries. When he confronted one of the managers about his relationship to these men, the manager acknowledged that the men were paramilitaries. He went on to say that they were clients and told the union official that if he objected, he could take his complaint to them.

During the same year in Cartagena, an individual who identified himself as a paramilitary called the home of a SINALTRAINAL leader and spoke to the worker’s 10-year old daughter who answered the telephone. He told the little girl that if her father did not leave town, the paramilitaries would murder him.

As recently as May 15, SINALTRAINAL leaders in Barranquilla received telephoned death threats. A letter threatening workers with death was also delivered to the union’s local headquarters. It read: “These are the names of the pamphleteers and ideologues who are fucking this city…The hour has arrived to extirpate their tentacles that grow daily in the unions…” Like most threats, these arrived during a period of contract negotiation.

Behind Paramilitary Terror

Unlike the insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the paramilitaries who target SINALTRAINAL do not oppose the activities of multinational corporations. Paramilitary commanders have even boasted that they protect these businesses and that they operate bases near Coca-Cola bottling plants.

SINALTRAINAL leaders understand the terror as part of a strategy carried out by paramilitaries, sectors of the state, and the Coca-Cola Company to weaken and eliminate the union. It is perhaps not surprising that the company refuses to negotiate in good faith with SINALTRAINAL, which has lost eight workers to paramilitary violence and seen its membership plummet because of constant threats and intimidation.

Coca-Cola will not issue a public statement condemning the violence against the union, and the corporation has blocked an independent investigation of its Colombian bottling facilities. In carefully crafted language, managers in Colombia infer that SINALTRAINAL is little more than a front for left-wing guerrillas.

Such innuendos are life-threatening in a country that leads the world in the assassination of trade unionists. Over 4,000 unionists have died since 1986, the vast majority at the hands of the paramilitaries.

The company has taken advantage of Colombia’s intractable political violence and the widespread impunity that accompanies it to obfuscate local political and economic struggles in which the company is intimately involved. Although corporate officials acknowledge the murder of Coca-Cola workers, they attribute these deaths to the indiscriminate, chaotic violence of Colombia’s decades-long conflict.

Such a view conveniently sidesteps the specifics of the conflict. Murdered and threatened workers are not the result of indiscriminate violence, nor are they the collateral damage of civilians caught between warring groups. They are the result of a calculated and selective strategy of murder and intimidation from which the company profits.

A weakened union and a terrified workforce pose less resistance to job cuts, lowered wages, reduced benefits, and “flexible” contracts that are promoted by the company and that are emblematic of the new neoliberal economic order. This is the Coke side of life.