Saturday, July 08, 2006


At the Coca-Cola Company's annual meeting of shareholders on April 19, CEO Neville Isdell announced positive first-quarter results and then solicited comments from the audience on the election of directors. The first response came from Ray Rogers, a longtime labor activist - but Rogers had no intention of talking about the makeup of Coke's board. Instead, he delivered a two-minute tirade on corporate perfidy: "The World of Coca-Cola [is] a world full of lies, deception, immorality, corruption, and widespread labor, human-rights, and environmental abuses."

If the words sounded rehearsed, it wasn't merely because Rogers had prepared his statement in advance: He has uttered this line, with its reference to the Coke memorabilia museum in Atlanta, on many occasions. His favorite venues are colleges and universities, where an anti-Coke movement has grown among left-wing activists for several years. They accuse the company of murdering union leaders in Colombia, causing water shortages in India, and violating worker rights in Indonesia and Turkey. Because of the efforts of Rogers and his allies, more than a dozen schools have terminated contracts with the soda maker or expelled its vending machines from cafeterias and dormitories. Activists frequently refer to Coke as "the new Nike" - a reference to a student-led anti-sweatshop movement that went after the shoemaker in the 1990s for the allegedly sorry state of its foreign factories. Right now, the campaign to stop "Killer Coke" is perhaps the trendiest protest movement on campus.

It hasn't affected Coke's bottom line, according to Isdell. But company officials have responded aggressively: They've created a website ( to rebut various allegations; bought a domain name ( that directs potential critics to their website; and sent teams of representatives to campuses that have considered cutting ties. They're clearly worried about the effects of a long-term smear campaign orchestrated by radicals determined to beat the Real Thing. The company is doing what it can to persuade open-minded students that slogans are no substitute for facts, but there's no shortage of closed minds. "Some people won't ever be satisfied because for them this is ideological," says Isdell. "Their goal is actually anti-capitalist."

Coca-Cola is of course a potent symbol of American capitalism. From its humble origins in a Georgia pharmacy in the 1880s, Coke has become a global drink of choice. The company estimates that its products are consumed 1.3 billion times per day. BusinessWeek magazine rates it the most valuable brand in the world.

Perhaps inevitably, Coke has become an appealing target for America-haters everywhere. As U.S. economic influence spread after the Second World War, Communists in France and elsewhere derided "Coca-Colonization." Just a few years ago, in the Wahhabi equivalent of playing Led Zeppelin records backwards and listening for satanic mutterings, some Muslims argued that the mirror image of Coca-Cola's familiar script delivered an anti-Islamic message in Arabic. Since then, French entrepreneur Tawfik Mathlouthi has introduced Mecca Cola, a Coke competitor with a red-and-white label. He says his goal is to fight "America's imperialism and Zionism by providing a substitute for American goods." At first, Mecca Cola was stocked only in small ethnic stores in a few European countries, but now it can be found on supermarket shelves across the continent, as well as in the Middle East. A portion of the proceeds are earmarked for the Palestinians.

Rogers says he became involved in this latest anti-Coke crusade nearly four years ago, when members of a Colombian union, Sinaltrainal, came to his office in New York with stories about the murders of labor leaders by right-wing paramilitaries. "I wasn't looking to get into this fight," he says. But the Colombians definitely were looking for him: Rogers has a reputation as an innovative activist who cut his teeth in the 1970s during a celebrated labor struggle against the textile manufacturer J. P. Stevens (an incident that later became the subject of the movie Norma Rae, for which Sally Field won an Oscar). Since those glory days, however, Rogers has become a radioactive figure among established unionists, especially because of his involvement in a botched strike against Hormel in the 1980s. But he is still occasionally sought out by labor interests seeking to advance causes by unconventional means. He runs a shoestring operation, which was perfect for the Colombians, who couldn't afford to pay him anything.

"I was moved by their story," says Rogers. "So I started an investigation of Coke." This "investigation," he admits, did not include any site visits: "I've never been to Colombia, but I'd love to get there." Nor did it involve a single contact with the Coca-Cola Company itself; Rogers didn't actually sit down with a Coke employee until last spring when he agreed to a meeting at Coke's request. "When I get involved in a campaign, I don't seek out corporate executives," he explains. "I represent people."

The people he ostensibly represents - those Colombians - say that right-wing paramilitaries killed eight union members between 1989 and 2002 and that these deaths were coordinated with Coke officials who were trying to weaken the unions at local bottling plants. These charges aren't even close to proven. Two judicial inquiries in Colombia found no evidence to support them. In 2003, a federal judge dismissed Coke as a defendant in a frivolous case filed by the International Labor Rights Fund. The IUF, the labor organization that represents more Coke workers than any other union in the world, has condemned the anti-Coke movement: "The boycott call is based on unsubstantiated allegations and empty political slogans. This call for a boycott will damage, rather than strengthen, the credibility of all those seeking to secure union rights for all employees in the Coca-Cola system." Rogers bristles at the mention of IUF: "From the start, it's been a thorn in my side."

It's also impossible to ignore the fact that Colombia has suffered from a prolonged civil war, in which both left-wing and right-wing groups have killed thousands of Colombians. That some of these deaths would touch union members who work at Coke facilities, where the unionization rate is considerably higher than it is elsewhere in the country, should not come as a shock. Even so, Sinaltrainal leaders have said that the families of the slain workers ought to receive payments equal to the salary of Coke's CEO. Rogers, for his part, notes that Coca-Cola paid nearly $200 million a few years ago to settle a class-action lawsuit based on racial discrimination. "They can afford this," he says.

Taking on a huge company such as Coke presents an enormous challenge - but Rogers's strategy doesn't call for a broad-based consumer boycott that would certainly flop. Instead, he seeks to achieve a series of small campus-level victories that generate unwelcome publicity for a brand-sensitive company as well as a sense of momentum for college students who are looking for a fashionable cause. "One of the reasons Rogers can attract students is because he can make them feel like they're participating in something by not doing anything at all," says Jarol Manheim, a political scientist at George Washington University who studies anti-corporate movements. "All they have to do is quit drinking Coke." Social responsibility has never been easier, especially with Pepsi available as an alternative.

To start the campaign, Rogers cherry-picked small schools such as Lake Forest College in Illinois and Bard College in New York. Last year, however, he scored a bigger victory when Rutgers ended an exclusive contract with Coke. By the end of 2005, both New York University and the University of Michigan had banned Coke. At Michigan, the administration demanded that Coke prove its innocence by cooperating in an independent investigation of the activists' key claims. Rogers was on a roll.

The irony is that by thinking globally and acting locally, these Coke bans can punish American unionists. Because Coke is bottled close to where it's sold all over the planet, a decision by the University of Michigan to halt Coke sales exerts precisely no pressure on bottlers in Colombia - but it does threaten union jobs in the Detroit area. "We fill those machines in Ann Arbor, so this hurts us and we don't have anything to do with what's going on in Colombia," says Richard Gremaud of Teamsters Local 337. Does Rogers care about these American workers? "In any kind of solidarity, there is pain," he replies. Gremaud feels differently: "If he was losing his job, he wouldn't say that."

The good news for these Teamsters is that the University of Michigan's administration rescinded its ban in April: Coke agreed to an independent investigation by the International Labor Organization, a branch of the United Nations. A report is expected this fall. Although the investigation hasn't even started, Rogers is already condemning it on the grounds that Ed Potter, a high-level Coke official, is a member of the U.S. delegation to the ILO. "There are 640 people who have a final vote in the ILO conference's legislative process," says Potter. "I have one of them, and I won't have anything to do with this investigation. To suggest that there's any undue influence is preposterous."

But it's an allegation Rogers needs to have ready, because an exoneration of Coke by the ILO would deliver a solid blow to his efforts. Rogers, in fact, has had to deal with a handful of recent setbacks. In Britain, the National Union of Students, a large purchasing co-op, voted to continue its relationship with Coke. And in the United States, there may be an emerging pro-Coke counter-movement: When a debate over Coke reached Michigan State University in East Lansing earlier this year, students affiliated with Young Americans for Freedom passed out fliers in support of the company.

In the end, the anti-Coke movement may fizzle like a can of pop that's been open too long. There's even a chance it will end almost exactly the same way the Coke shareholders meeting did in April: with Ray Rogers standing in the back of the room, shouting about how he hadn't been allowed to speak, even though he had.


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