On April 26, the New York University Coalition to Keep Coca-Cola Off Campus will launch its new campaign to ban all Coke’s products from the campus. The campaign seeks to highlight the Coca-Cola’s refusal to allow an independent investigation into the killing of eight members of SINALTRAINAL, the union that represents workers at Coke’s bottling plants in Colombia.
The coalition will bring the award-winning documentary The Coca-Cola Case to Tishman Auditorium for its New York premiere. The film will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the film’s directors Germán Gutiérrez and Carmen García, as well as anti-Coca-Cola activist Ray Rogers (who appears in the film), SINALTRAINAL member Camilo Romero, and representatives from the NYU student campaign.
The Coca-Cola Case traces the efforts of members of SINALTRAINAL, U.S. lawyers Daniel Kovalik and Terry Collingsworth, and activist Rogers to bring Coke to trial for having played a role in the trade unionist killings by Colombian paramilitaries at Coca-Cola bottling plants. The filmmakers followed the attorneys and activists for three years as they attempted to seek justice for the murders of Colombian workers employed by Coke.
Proving the company’s complicity in the killing of workers at contracted bottling plants in a court of law has proved to be difficult. In the film, lawyers seek to hold Coke accountable in the United States by making use of the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789. This law allows victims abroad to prosecute U.S.-based corporations and has laid the basis for these lawsuits against U.S.-based banana companies Chiquita and Dole, as well as Coca-Cola, for having provided material support to the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which the State Department has designated as a terrorist group since 2001.
Chiquita pled guilty in 2007 to paying more than $1.7 million to the AUC, and the company paid $25 million in fines. The case against Coca-Cola, however, has not been successful the U.S. courts. Trade unionists in Guatemala recently filed another suit in New York against Coca-Cola for alleged human rights abuses.
Despite the difficulty of proving guilt in a courtroom, the documentary presents other information that indicates that Coke may have something to hide. The company, for example, presented two enormous settlement offers to the plaintiffs to drop their case, and an even larger offer if they were to leave SINALTRAINAL and disappear.
According to Gutiérrez, Coca-Cola has attempted to keep the movie from being distributed. He said in a telephone interview that distributors received intimidating letters, claiming The Coca-Cola Case was “defamatory” and in breach of confidentiality agreements signed by the lawyers who mediated the SINALTRAINAL case. One of the letters, which Gutiérrez provided to NACLA, said that “any further showing of the Film by or through the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) would be a knowing disclosure of TCCC’s [the Coca Cola Company’s] confidential information, as provided in the parties’ confidentiality agreement and the Final Order of the Settlement Master.”
But despite these efforts, Guitiérrez and García’s documentary has begun finding audiences across the globe. Like most movies today it has cropped up on the Internet, in addition to major screenings in Paris, Madrid, Istanbul, all over Latin America, and now Canada and the United States.
Accusations have been floating around for years about Coca-Cola’s involvement in the killing of union leaders in Colombia. So while the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act may be a novel approach in holding Coke accountable, many of the charges in The Coca-Cola Case are not new.
Then again, neither are efforts to kick Coke off of NYU’s campus. After years of organizing, students eventually won for a first time in 2005, and NYU became the 12th U.S. campus to ban Coke. By February 2009 the list had grown to 50. At NYU, however, the university Senate (where only 22 of 80 seats are held by students) ignored two separate student votes, and the ban was removed. In a sharp letter denouncing the decision, Jeff Olshansky, the co-chair of NYU Law Students for Economic Justice and one of the principal organizers working to renew the Coke ban wrote, “NYU made a promise to these Colombian workers and they broke that promised. . . . NYU decided to put their financial relationship with Coke above human rights.”
At the center of speculation about the reversal are several economic relationships between Coca-Cola and NYU. According to Olshansky’s letter, NYU “administrators have stated that Coke has withheld a considerable amount of money from the athletics department in response to the ban. . . . Coke’s name is printed on multiple NYU buildings. . . . Barry Diller, a board member for Coca-Cola, is a member of NYU’s Board of Trustees.” Diller was invited to the premiere of The Coca-Cola Case by e-mail, telephone, and a hand-delivered letter to his office. As of this writing he had not acknowledged the invitation, but student organizers have said that in the spirit of open debate, they hope he will participate in the post-film conversation.
Coalition organizer Sara Cullinane, a first-year law student, is optimistic about the prospects for rebuilding a campaign to ban Coke on campus. “We’re trying to re-engage the student body about NYU’s involvement in human rights issues around the world, and to remind the administration we’re still here,” Cullinane said. “Even though students may cycle through every four years, the campaign is here to stay.” She noted that in addition to the steering committee of 10, the NYU Coalition to Keep Coca-Cola Off Campus represents at least 12 partner organizations on campus.
Cullinane also reflected on the diversity of tactics being deployed in the pursuit of justice for Coca-Cola employees. “To be clear, none of us are working on legal campaigns. We are obviously interested in the legal issues, but see our power as students. We are stakeholders as students and have built a broad-based coalition with many other schools within NYU, as well as in the Colombian community in New York. The way we’re going to get action from NYU is by uniting as students.”
Gutiérrez seems to agree with Cullinane about the complementary roles of legal strategies and grassroots mobilization. “One of the reasons Atlanta [Coca-Cola headquarters] called the union members to the table, put millions of dollars on the table, is because of the student movements and campaigns against Coke,” Gutiérrez said. “It is very easy sometime to become cynical and say, ‘Coke is too big, we are just 20 students on campus.’ But these campaigns prove just the opposite.”
Jason Farbman is a master’s student at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU.