Our first stop in investigating Coca-Cola’s alleged role in anti-union violence in Colombia was Wilmington, Del., for the company’s annual meeting of shareholders on April 19, 2005.
“Our company and our bottling partners have been accused of complicity in the murder of union members and the ongoing intimidation of union members and of the suppression of union activity in Colombia,” declared Coca-Cola chairman E. Neville Isdell. “The allegations are not true.”
Colombia has a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world in which to be a union activist. Of the 213 union leaders murdered worldwide in 2002, 184 died in Colombia. Most observers of Colombia’s endless civil war agree that the majority of attacks on unions come from the right-wing paramilitary death squads, who have intimidated, beaten, kidnapped and killed union members.
A lawsuit against Coca-Cola and its Colombian bottlers was filed in 2001 in a Miami federal court, charging that the company had collaborated with the paramilitaries to threaten and assassinate union organizers. Under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a U.S. company can be sued in America for its actions abroad. Lawyers from the International Labor Rights Fund took up the case with the assistance of the United Steelworkers of America. Student activists have begun boycotting Coke on campus and, perhaps most significant, the New York City Employee Pension Fund is using its Coca-Cola shares as leverage to pressure management into approving a thorough human rights probe of the company’s Colombian operations.