Arts and Culture

'The Coca-Cola Case'

More than a documentary, it's a vehicle for a global movement for corporate accountability and union rights.

By Tom Sandborn 25 Mar 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for The Tyee. He welcomes feedback and story tips at tos@infinet.net.

"For nine years the 450 workers at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Guatemala City fought a battle for their jobs, their trade union and their lives. Three times they occupied the plant -- on the last occasion for 13 months. Three general secretaries of their union were murdered and five other workers killed. Four more were kidnapped and have disappeared. Against all the odds they survived, thanks to their own extraordinary courage and help from fellow trade unionists in Guatemala and around the world." -- From the back cover of Soft Drink, Hard Labour: Guatemalan Workers Take On Coca-Cola by Mike Gatehouse and Miguel Angel Reyes 

Imagine living under conditions that mean simply joining a trade union could get you and your family members killed, your daughter gang raped or see you driven into exile by the fear of company thugs. A growing chorus of labour lawyers, social critics and human rights activists are saying that is exactly the situation facing workers employed by Coca-Cola bottlers in Third World countries. These days, some of the voices making these allegations are being raised in Canada. They say that there is a line of responsibility that runs from Coca-Cola's corporate offices in Atlanta to the violence of anti-union gunmen in the Third World -- a claim that the Coca-Cola corporation steadfastly denies.

Last month, the Surrey Teachers Association (STA) hosted a film night for its members, showing the National Film Board production The Coca Cola Case. The film, which won a Best in Festival Award in 2010 at the Canadian Labour International Festival, chronicles a pair of lawsuits launched against the soft drink giant by the United Steel Workers of America and the International Labour Rights Fund in 2001 and 2006 on behalf of a Colombian union. The film focuses on labour lawyers Dan Kovalik and Terry Collingsworth and veteran human rights campaigner Ray Rogers as they fight to hold Coca-Cola accountable for anti-labour violence allegedly promoted by the company's bottling plants.

Typically Coke is not bottled in Third World countries by wholly owned Coca-Cola company plants. The local companies, however, are intimately involved with the soft drink giant through interlocking boards, partial stock ownership and stringent marketing and branding requirements. For example, a 2010 suit alleging similar anti-union violence under the aegis of the Coca-Cola brand in Guatemala argues that "While there may be some aspects of the bottlers' operations that are dealt with by local management, Coke retains authority over major issues that affect product quality, marketing and other issues that could have a major impact on the Coke brand image. Compliance with international human rights and labor standards at all of the Coke bottling plants is one of the areas that Coke has specifically asserted that it controls and/or directs from its operations in the United States."

"We don't think the guys in Atlanta called Colombia and ordered the killing of these guys because they are troublemakers," German Gutierrez, one of the filmmakers behind The Coca-Cola Case told The Tyee. However, he said, Coke headquarters did not step in to stop them.

"One simple phone call from Atlanta to these Colombia guys would stop these killings," he said.

Distribution by film makers, students, unions

Coke has been dogged over the past decades with accusations of corporate crime in many countries. By its own account the world's largest beverage company, the multi-national stands accused of complicity in murder in Colombia and Guatemala, anti-union violence in Mexico and Turkey, beating activists in China and environmentally destructive practices in India.

While the Surrey film night event was a modest affair, the screening was part of an ongoing international campaign targeting the world's largest soft drink manufacturer. Canadian film makers, unions and students all have played key roles in the groundswell of opposition to what critics call "Killer Coke."

The cases launched in 2001 and 2006, the subject matter of the film that was shown locally in February, were dismissed in American courts on technical grounds, so the allegations made by Colombian unionists and their North American allies have not been proven, Terry Collingsworth told The Tyee in a recent phone interview. However, he emphasized that "by the same token, no court has ever said that Coca-Cola was not responsible."

Collingsworth said the anti-Coke cases were dismissed on the basis of the Iqbal precedent, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that has made it much more difficult for plaintiffs to get their cases before the courts by creating a much higher "pleading standard," in effect requiring that those who allege corporate or government maltreatment have to make a much stronger and more detailed case before they can begin the process of discovery that allows them to subpoena internal documents from the defendant.

"It has shifted from a situation where you used to be able to allege facts that you knew, but where you still had to gather the details through discovery," Terry Collingsworth told the American Prospect magazine last year. "Now you pretty much have to have all the evidence before you even file a case. As a result, we are going to see many corporate-accountability cases that are simply not pursued."

BC teachers union backs boycott

In addition to the STA film night, the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) has endorsed a call for a boycott of Coke products to pressure the firm to stop its alleged complicity in union busting violence around the world.

"A campaign to boycott Coca-Cola is active on campuses around Canada and the U.S. and has been joined by the BCTF by a motion passed at a Representative Assembly. Teachers are asked to boycott Coke and its many products," the union announced in 2006. (In 2010, 27 of the 46 union activists murdered in Columbia were teachers.)

Susan Lambert, the BCTF's new president, told The Tyee that her union had called for the Coke boycott because of a request from teachers' unions in Latin America. Tammy Neuman, one of the Surrey teachers who organized the showing of "The Coca-Cola Case" said, for her, it's a matter of principle.

"I really want my fellow teachers to become aware of international issues," Neuman said. "We are only a little part of the puzzle, but it is important that we as union members stand in solidarity with other workers around the world."

Neuman told The Tyee she sings with a local labour choir, the Solidarity Notes, which performs the anti-Coke song "Coke is the Drink of the Death Squads" in its local appearances and has posted their version of the David Rovics song on YouTube.

Other Canadian union bodies have supported the anti-Coke campaign, including the Canadian Auto Workers Local 707, the Oakville & District Labour Council in Ontario, OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union), the Yukon Area Council, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the United Steelworkers and the Secondary School Teachers Federation Bargaining Unit District 12 in Ontario.

However, neither the Canadian Labour Congress nor the BC Federation of Labour has endorsed the anti-Coke campaign as yet.

NFB produced 'The Coca-Cola Case'

In the United States, 35 labour bodies have endorsed the campaign, including the United Auto Workers, whose president, Bob King, has removed all Coke products from union facilities, the Communications Workers of America, the American Teachers Federation, the South Carolina AFL-CIO and the American Postal Workers. According to Ray Rogers, the hard-driving director of the Stop Killer Coke campaign, the Amalgamated Transit Union is likely to join the list of supporters after its executive council meeting in May.

Canadian student groups have actively supported the campaign as well, with some success at pushing Coke off campus reported at the University of Lethbridge, the Guelph Student Union, UBC, Mt. Allison in New Brunswick, Carleton and McMasters. Neither the BC Ministry of Education nor the Vancouver School Board, however, was able to tell The Tyee if Coke was still being sold at the schools they oversee.

The film shown by the Surrey teachers, The Coca-Cola Case, was produced by the Canadian National Film Board. The film premiered last year with a tour of Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Norway and New Zealand, although not before an attempt by Coca-Cola to prevent the tour's sponsors from proceeding with screenings, according to the Montreal Gazette.

The film collective bringing the documentary to Montreal "received a letter from lawyers in New York representing Coca-Cola, who called the film defamatory and cite scenes in which subjects in the film reveal confidential information," according to the Gazette.

The film's Montreal-based co-director, German Gutierrez, was born in Columbia. Gutierrez has a personal interest in politically inflected violence in his home country, he told The Tyee, as his older brother was shot in a political assassination attempt seven years ago.

Coca Cola rejects accusations

The Coca-Cola Company did not respond to repeated email and telephone requests to speak with The Tyee for this story. However, the firm has posted general responses to some of its critics on the company website here.

In response to claims that Coke and its bottlers have been complicit in union-busting violence in Columbia, the firm says:

"Two different judicial inquiries in Colombia -- one in a Colombian court and one by the Colombian attorney general -- have found no evidence to support these allegations. The allegations were the bases of a lawsuit filed in 2001 in a U.S. District Court in Miami against the Company and Coca-Cola independent bottling partners in Colombia. The Company was dismissed as a defendant in 2004, and in 2006 the independent bottling partners in Colombia were also dismissed, with the judge noting the lack of evidence in his dismissal. The plaintiffs have filed an appeal, which is the standard course of U.S. litigation."

In response to claims that Coke has damaged Indian aquifers, the same website says: "Throughout all of our operations, we adhere to rigorous quality standards that cover both source water and finished products. Our manufacturing process allows us to produce beverages that consistently meet our international standards for safety and quality."

At least one important Indian NGO, the India Resource Centre, takes a different view, saying on its web site:

"Communities across India living around Coca-Cola's bottling plants are experiencing severe water shortages, directly as a result of Coca-Cola's massive extraction of water from the common groundwater resource. The wells have run dry and the hand water pumps do not work any more. Studies, including one by the Central Ground Water Board in India, have confirmed the significant depletion of the water table. When the water is extracted from the common groundwater resource by digging deeper, the water smells and tastes strange. Coca-Cola has been indiscriminately discharging its waste water into the fields around its plant and sometimes into rivers, including the Ganges, in the area. The result has been that the groundwater has been polluted as well as the soil. Public health authorities have posted signs around wells and hand pumps advising the community that the water is unfit for human consumption."

'Huge inroads'

Ray Rogers, the spokesman for the international Stop Killer Coke campaign, which he describes as "a mechanism to confront power with power," said that he is optimistic that the combination of union, student and civil society pressures will win changes from what he calls "a company out of control."

"We're making huge inroads on campuses," he said, "and the unions are really stepping up to the plate. This is a campaign for democracy, for union rights and for compensation for the many people hurt by Coke. If what I say about Coke isn't accurate, then why don't they sue me? I think they're afraid of what would emerge in the discovery process if they ever did."  [Tyee]

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