Killer Coke Exposed

Against the Current, No. 135, July/August 2008

Jared Abbott

IN THEIR SEPTEMBER-October 2006 Against the Current (ATC 124) article “The Real Life Side of Coke,” Camilo Romero and Leslie Gill documented the growing movement of students and labor organizations that developed as a response to calls for international solidarity by victims of torture and intimidation at Coke bottling plants in Colombia starting in the 1990s. Joe Zacune wrote in the same issue about a movement of communities in India fighting to preserve their water and their health from a series of infractions on Coke’s part.

Since the writing of these two articles, there have been important advances as well as setbacks in the global anti-Coke movement, which is comprised of activists, workers and communities around the world. Coke’s sacrosanct brand value has dipped four percent in the last two years (an estimated loss of over $2.1 billion to the company, according to Brandweek); TIAA-CREF, the nation’s largest retirement fund, has dropped Coke from its CREF Social Choice account and divested $1.25 million Coke shares; and student movements in Europe and North America continue to gain strides against Coke on their campuses.

Yet litigation against and mediation with the company in the United States are on their last legs, promised independent investigations into the Colombian and Indian situations have failed to materialize, and overall involvement in the campaign is down. The movement now stands at a strategic and philosophical crossroads; it is time to take stock of its present and future challenges.

The Colombian workers victimized by Coke, members of The National Union of Food Industry Workers (SINALTRAINAL), extended their hands to students and workers in the developed world because of the extremely ineffectual legal system in their own country and the difficulty of garnering popular support in a region where violence against unionists is commonplace.

Former United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) international campaigns coordinator and close ally of the SINALTRAINAL workers Camilo Romero explained the difficulty of motivating people into action in North America and Europe: Middle-class students in the global north necessarily have more flexibility with how they invest their time and resources than do working-class people in Colombia.

The risks involved with union organizing are a matter of life in death in Colombia, where many labor activists have been assassinated, and only a matter of time and dedication in the north. Thus there exists a serious responsibility on the parts of U.S. and European activists to constantly take measure of the relationship between their work and the objectives of the direct victims of Coke’s violence.

Despite the best and most vital intentions, the anti-Coke movement has to some extent diverged from a focus upon the fundamental causes of Coke’s crimes in Colombia and around the world to a vision that foregrounds one of the symptoms: capitalist consumption. Despite the great progress the anti-Coke movement has made, the campaign will ultimately achieve much more by taking on the corporation as a systemic manifestation of the inherent moral shortcomings of capitalist production than by simply lopping off branches from a mighty oak of corporate malfeasance.

“Killer Coke” Campaign in Praxis

Anti-Coke activists can be found in union halls, churches, congressional hearings, board rooms, court rooms and rural villages, but by far the most widely publicized of these has been in the student movement.

On some campuses, like Rutgers, good timing ran into a dedicated labor teacher and some open-minded administrators, and without any direct action and relatively little opposition, Coke was history.  At other campuses, such as Loyola, a recently revived chapter of USAS waged a brilliant campaign of intensive face-to-face student body education, rapidly assembled a coalition of progressive student groups, passed a resolution against Coke through the student government, and even encountered a university president who was initially receptive to their arguments.

Unfortunately, the Loyola campaign effectively ended in a joint contract between Coke and rival Cadbury-Schweppes (although some controversy continues). In the face of such outstanding organizing at a Jesuit university supposedly interested in social justice, how was such an outcome possible?

According to Micah Uetrich, one of the anti-Coke student leaders at Loyola, Coke actually contacted the campus Republicans who subsequently started a counter-campaign, and Coke officials were flown in from Atlanta to address students and administrators without letting anyone from the opposition speak.

In spite of these dramatic steps taken by the company, students at Loyola were still able to make their voice heard by getting rid of Coke’s exclusive contract with the university. Nevertheless, Uetrich feels that in the final analysis he and his colleagues were simply too nice, and didn’t take the campaign to the next level.

Uetrich now believes that appeasing university administrators is not effective because such an approach is based on the false assumption that administrators actually want to work with student groups.

In reality, he believes, the extent to which university officials come to the table with student activists directly corresponds to the degree of organizing pressure activists bring to bear upon administrators.

At some schools, like SUNY Binghamton, dedicated organizers and creative strategies haven’t yet been enough to tip the scales against Coke. Seamus Dolan, an organizer at Binghamton, emphasized the importance of networking with other movements to promote ideas such as a public Mock Funeral. Dolan believes that the most important thing is to get more people involved in order to engender a cultural shift that can overcome chronic student apathy towards activism.

This sentiment is echoed by Eddie Klatka, a member of Ohio State’s small but vibrant anti-Coke contingent that continues working to cut Coke’s exclusive contract which ends this June. Klatka wishes “to change the idea of what people think activism is,” and with an “active, but not attacking” approach, Klatka says the majority of people he talks to say “what can I do?”

In this vein, Klatka and his colleagues tried to inform their fellow students with innocuous hooks such as handing out hot chocolate and casually engaging with the issues in the process. These few anecdotes illustrate the fact that anti-Coke student groups tailor their tactics to the particular climate of each school, but at the same time they demonstrate that external factors and preexisting social, institutional and political characteristics strongly influence the likelihood of success.

Killer Coke in Theory

Overwhelmingly, organizers everywhere outside of India have focused on the situation in Colombia. Of course this focus makes sense given that it was the Colombian workers who first called for an international movement and who literally brought the issue into the U.S. arena with two lawsuits against Coke and their bottlers in 2001 and 2006.

Through literature and conversation, activists have brought both a moral and a logical case against Coke in Colombia. From a moral perspective, they have stressed that since the company has literally profited from crimes in Colombia through the creation of a cheaper, more malleable workforce they should do much more to redress the Colombian workers’ grievances.

Activists have detailed, as the Miami lawsuits did, Coke’s commanding stake both in shares and board members in the primary Coke bottler in Colombia, the documented relationships between paramilitary forces (responsible for the killings) and plant managers, and the various methods of evasion the company has used to distance themselves from the incidents.

Although many groups also included discussions of the Indian crisis and a number of others throughout the world, several organizers I talked with explained that if the movement’s focus becomes too broad, it will not only end up confusing individuals who are not well versed on the subject, but also losing sight of why this specific struggle began in the first place: to express solidarity with Colombian workers.

Yet the notion that broadening the scope of the campaign decreases the likelihood of expanding the base, and diverts focus from the true center of the campaign, is not necessarily correct. Many anti-Coke activists make it a point to emphasize, as Leslie Gill, Professor of Anthropology at American University told me, “this goes way beyond Coke.”

One woman described how her group was concurrently working on Coke as well as issues of globalization in general, and USAS representative Zack Knorr repeatedly stressed “it’s not just about Coke, it’s about changing the industry.”

Yet as aware as many activists are of the position of the anti-Coke movement in the larger anti-corporate world, the biggest challenges remain bringing the fight to a wider audience and engendering meaningful institutional change that makes Coke unable to keep committing these crimes. It is important to remember, as Camilo Romero stressed, that this movement is only in its early stages and while boycotts and cutting contracts have admittedly limited efficacy, these are first steps on a greater path that will take many years to tread.

Nevertheless, focusing on these methods also plays into the myth of the power of the consumer and circumvents the movement’s potential to address the economic, political and social structures that created the conditions making the exploitation of labor possible in the first place. In addition, boycotts and market elimination do not directly pose a serious threat to the economic well-being of the company (at least not at this point). More than anything, they raise awareness and contribute to a public relations nightmare that does have real effects on the company.

Taking this idea to its next logical step, some anti-Coke groups have tapped into the extreme importance of one of Coke’s most crucial weapons, marketing, and developed an array of tactics that both highlight the inherent moral and ethical instability of transnational corporate structures as well as expose Coke to the media and the public to an unprecedented degree.

Marketing for the People

Foremost among the media-focused bloc of anti-Coke activists is Corporate Campaign, whose director is long-time labor organizer Ray Rogers. Over the past several decades, Rogers has successfully organized against corporations by employing unique media and campaigning strategies that draw connections between disparate aspects of corporate dereliction and sew them into a coherent blanket of shame that is then spread upon the public.

After being brought into the Coke fray in 2003 by SINALTRAINAL’s U.S. legal representatives, the International Labor Relations Fund (ILRF), Rogers set to work redefining Coke’s public image; his group is responsible for the now iconic slogan “Killer Coke” and hard-hitting illustrations such as the “Colombian Coke Float,” depicting slain union leaders floating in a glass of Coke.

Rogers’ model and similar methods employed by other segments of the “Killer Coke” campaign are most innovative in developing two general organizing/media strategies: re-signifying Coke to make the company intrinsically linked with the effects of its corporate negligence through re-branding and media saturation, and articulating Coke’s abuses with deeper structural issues of capitalism and globalization.

This method taps into Coke’s wildly successful media strategy with advertisements that attempt to naturalize Coke as a positive element of the global landscape, and turns this same tactic against the company.

The diminishing value of Coke’s brand name is evidence of the success of the “Killer Coke” campaign in de-naturalizing the manifest products of Coke (cans, bottles, etc.) as symbols of American patriotism, development and progress, exposing the human and environmental rights abuses that are intrinsic elements of their nature.

The Anti-Ad

For example, in this anti-ad the artist resignifies the Coke can to reveal all the real aspects of production that went into the can’s creation. Clever graphics alone are not enough to match the billions of dollars in marketing and advertising the company itself has spent to saturate the media with its own materials. Remarkably, however, in a testament to the success of Killer Coke’s anti-marketing strategy, the internet has done much of the work on its own, making images such as the Killer Cola can or anti-Coke documentaries/ videos nearly as ubiquitous in a google images or youtube search as genuine Coke images.

Another crucially important aspect of the Corporate Campaign model is its focus on the entire spectrum of corporate abuse. There has simply never been an era in which Coke didn’t demonstrate immoral and/or unethical behavior, while using its image and cultural status to distance itself from these behaviors — suggesting that far from intermittent corporate collateral damage, these abuses are intrinsic to Coke’s very modus operandi.

Thus the case of Coke is emblematic of the mechanisms inherent to capitalism. Showing this entire landscape not only opens the door for a wider audience of people to relate the campaign to themselves, but also stays true to the ideological underpinnings of the SINALTRAINAL workers, who according to Leslie Gill take a resolutely anti-capitalist stance.

Solidarity Networks

Ideally, expanding these techniques and rhetoric will enable the movement not only to make Coke own up to its responsibility in Colombia, India and elsewhere, but will create pressure for stricter, universalized labor regulations in trade agreements, for rolling back austerity programs that allow corporations like Coke to enter any market they please and pay for it with the widening economic gap between rich and poor, and for a powerful international regulatory body with the power to hold corporations accountable for their crimes.

Yet this remains only one side of the equation. Equally important must be the expansion of the activist networks that have arisen out of this struggle in order to heighten the power of solidarity between communities and workers. This fact is especially salient in relation to the state of union solidarity for the campaign.

Some unions, especially those that represent Coke workers, see the campaign as a threat to the jobs of their members and withhold their support as a result. In response, Ray Rogers noted that in the unlikely scenario that any of the union’s workers should be fired and the campaign blamed, a small contribution from each of the large union’s members would be enough to create a solidarity fund for the laid-off workers who could then spend their time working full time in the campaign against Coke. Another union leader, of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union stated a much more direct equation: “If you believe in worker solidarity, you support this campaign. It’s as simple as that.”

In regard to the student and community networks that have been created, Camilo Romero argues that while the consumer approach may not be the best, it is the unprecedented grassroots power created by relationships among groups and peoples around the world that will eventually prove most vital to meaningful social change.

Romero recounted a story of an old woman in Colombia who, after finding out he was involved with the campaign, told him he should hook up with the students at New York University who had recently banned Coke. Romero replied that they, he and his colleagues, were those students, and the woman was stunned to actually meet these activists who were working on behalf of her community so far away. Romero counts it as one of his proudest moments.

There remains a lack of strong communication between the North American/European anti-Coke movement and the movements in India, Turkey, Indonesia, and many other locales. Furthermore, Romero emphasizes that “sexy” tactics like re-signification and media exposure cannot make up for other essential strategies: building, maintaining and expanding international networks of solidarity, seeking out the support of working-class students and students of color, and taking other material steps towards closing the gap between middle-class activists in the “Global North” and those communities in Colombia, India and around the world who are most negatively affected by Coke’s crimes.

ATC 135, July-August 2008

1 comment

Comments are closed.