Teamsters join protest against Coca-Cola over workers rights

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Coca-Cola is now facing a labour relations problem in the US, after
the Teamsters Union joined protesters calling for boycotts against
the company over alleged human rights violations in Colombia.

While Coca-Cola said this week that it was "greatly disappointed and offended" by the "false and inflammatory" allegations made by the Teamsters, the union's action marks a situation where its workforce is becoming activist on a global scale.

The situation could lead the company into a conflict with the US's most powerful union and possible work stoppages. The Teamsters this week called on the company to negotiate a global human rights agreement that would apply to all workers. Coca-Cola responded by saying it has already started the process.

The Teamsters are also afraid of job losses due to the cancellation by universities of a number of lucrative contracts with the company. The universities have been pressured into action due to student protests over allegations involving hit squads, murder and pollution.

"Coca-Cola's refusal to take the students seriously is having a direct impact on the company, its reputation and the Teamsters who service university contracts,"​ stated Joe Wojciechowski, president of Teamsters Local 812, which represents about 2,000 of the company's workers in New York.

The Teamsters said it would address a national meeting of the United Students Against Sweatshops later this week about the issue.

In January the University of Michigan joined the universities of New York and Rutgers in banning all Coke products, bringing the number of bans to 21 in North America. The University of Michigan said it implemented the ban after the company missed a 31 December deadline to set up third party investigations and protocols to assess events in Colombia and India.

Another 130 colleges and universities are thought to be considering their options, according to the Center for Informed Food Choices.

With the Teamsters joining in the protests Coca-Cola is finding itself on the receiving end of snowballing protests. Teamsters members on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a resolution authorizing its leadership to seek a resolution to the dispute between Coca-Cola and student, labor and human rights groups.

"Our union brothers and sisters at Coca-Cola bottling facilities in Colombia have been threatened, kidnapped, tortured and murdered,"​ alleged Jim Hoffa, Teamsters General President. "It's long past time for Coca-Cola to negotiate a global human rights agreement that will protect the rights and safety of workers who produce, package and distribute Coca-Cola products."

Teamster's international vice president, Jack Cipriani, went further by accusing Coca-Cola of labor abuses in the US. The allegations include claims of "harassment, intimidation, discrimination and retaliation" at the company's operations in the US.

The Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), which represents about 6,000 Coca-Cola workers at three bottling plants in South Africa has also endorsed the Teamster's move.

"Our members in South Africa support you in your demand that Coca-Cola institute a human rights policy,"​ stated Katishi Masemola, the FAWU's general secretary.

The protests follow the murder of eight union workers who were employees at Coca-Cola's plants in Colombia. Coca-Cola is also accused of intimidating other unionised workers in the country.

The protesters have demanded that the soft drinks giant to set up a new, third party inquiry into the allegations.

Meanwhile Coca-Cola this week responded by again denying the allegations.

"I would stand our company's labor relations practices alongside any other company on the planet,"​ stated Ed Potter, director of the company's global labor relations section. "These unjustified attacks do a disservice to the men and women of Coca-Cola, they mislead the public and impede progress for workers' rights worldwide."

Coca-Cola system is one of the most highly unionized multinational corporations in Colombia and throughout the world, the company claimed.

Last year, the company signed a joint statement with the IUF, the international organization for food and beverage unions, confirming that Coca-Cola workers are "allowed to exercise rights to union membership and collective bargaining without pressure or interference."

Two different judicial inquiries in Colombia have found no evidence to support allegations that bottler management there conspired to intimidate or threaten trade unionists, the company claimed.

An additional independent assessment has been conducted by Cal Safety Compliance Corporation, a social compliance auditor certified by the Fair Labor Association and Social Accountability 8000.

The assessment "confirmed that workers in Coca-Cola plants in Colombia enjoy freedom of association, collective bargaining rights and an atmosphere free of anti-union intimidation,"​ Coca-Cola claimed.

In late January, Coca-Cola also announced an independent third party organisation had been contracted to assess the conditions in Colombia during the first quarter of 2006.

"The assessment will involve international labor organizations and non- governmental organizations and will be conducted with the cooperation of its Colombian bottling partners,"​ the company stated.

The company said it was also working on a worker rights policy that it expects to adopt by the end of the first quarter of 2006. The policy will contain a commitment to foster an open and inclusive environment based on recognized workplace human rights, the company stated.

"I am unaware of the Teamsters ever being involved in productive discussions addressing the issues facing Colombian workers,"​ Potter stated. It is clear that the Teamsters know nothing about our operations in Colombia."

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