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On July 20, a Colombian union filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, seeking $500 million in damages from Coca-Cola Co., its largest Latin American franchisee and two Key Biscayne, Fla., investors who own a bottling company in provincial Colombia. Sinaltrainal (the National Union of Food Industry Workers) alleges the U.S. players looked the other way during the killing of five of its union activists by paramilitary goons, or may have even instigated the carnage. Federal Judge Paul Huck of the Southern District court in Miami will have to determine the merits of the lawsuit. But no matter what he decides, Coca-Cola is facing a serious public relations campaign by union activists. The union, determined to get some sense of justice for the deaths of six of its leaders in or near Coca-Cola plants, hopes to win over public opinion in the U.S. It has found support not only among American unions and activists, but even among its critics. Members of a competing conservative union have repeatedly criticized CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores), the country’s largest leftist union federation Sinaltrainal is affiliated with, for alleged links with guerilla groups and the use of violent methods. But that doesn’t mean they oppose the lawsuit. “Of course I support it! I think they are right,” contends an activist of a rival conservative union who declined to have his name published. “I like it, because the problem is made public outside of Colombia.” The problem of violence in Colombian companies, this activist concedes, cannot solely be blamed on management and paramilitaries. Union activists, including himself, he says, have resorted to threats and beatings. He has been shot three times in the past five years and had been kidnapped, robbed, beaten and repeatedly threatened by what he claims were CUT goons. Nevertheless, he is excited about the lawsuit because it airs the issue of violence against all union activists in Colombia. “In a U.S. court, not only those who accuse are talking, but also those who are accused,” the activist said in a recent interview. “Coca-Cola will have to defend itself, and it will come out that other unions in Colombia are under fire as well.” That remains in Judge Huck’s hands, however. Coca-Cola flatly rejects the notion of any responsibility, arguing it doesn’t own any bottling plants and has no role in the events on the ground in Colombia. “The company and our authorized bottlers in Colombia take these accusations very seriously,” Natalie Rule, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta, said in a written statement. “And, as is true for all legal claims against us, we are looking into the specific allegations filed in this lawsuit. We have no reason to believe, however, that these allegations have any merit. We have been and continue to be assured by our bottlers that behavior such as that depicted in the claim recently filed in Miami has in no way been instigated, carried out or condoned by these bottling companies.” Panamerican Beverages Inc., the Miami-based Coke franchisee, also insists the allegations are baseless. A spokesman for Panamco’s Colombian subsidiary told The New York Times and Reuters that his company is weighing a defamation lawsuit against Sinaltrainal. And a lawyer representing the father and son investor team from Key Biscayne insists his clients have nothing to do with violence against union people in Colombia. The two men, both named Richard Kirby, have one visit to Colombia between them. The father has been there once. The son has never visited the country. “The allegations [against my clients] are baseless,” says Bill McCaughan, a partner with Miami law firm Duane Morris and Heckscher. “This matter was looked into by the Colombian government when they investigated it five years ago, and they determined that there was no base. Obviously, I don’t know how it is in anybody’s logic that [Miami] can be the jurisdiction in a case that happened in Colombia.” But plaintiffs’ attorney Terry Collingsworth, general counsel for the International Labor Rights Fund, successfully used the Alien Tort Claim Act in a lawsuit over oil company Unocal’s activities in Burma. The 1996 suit by the ILRF, which alleges Unocal used slave labor to build an oil pipeline in Myanmar, is working its way through the California state and federal courts. And the violence at Colombian companies, including multinational corporations, against union activists is an undeniable fact. Indeed, in Colombia, people joke, it’s more dangerous to join a union than a guerrilla group. CUT, for example, has lost nearly 3,000 members since it was founded in 1986, according to the Information Network of the Americas. At least 112 trade unionists were executed in the violence-torn country last year, according to Amnesty International. In the first three months of this year, 35 union activists were killed — four times as many as last year — three “disappeared,” and five survived assassination attempts. According to Amnesty International, 300 unionists have asked the Colombian government for help in leaving the country. In Sinaltrainal’s efforts to organize and represent Coke workers in Colombia, five union activists were assassinated since 1986; one survived an attempt in 1998. The latest victim is Oscar Dario Soto Polo, an employee and union official at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the port of Monertia who was gunned down June 21. It’s pretty much undisputed that right-wing paramilitaries are doing by far most of the killing. But it is less clear who is ordering the killings. Since 1996, Sinaltrainal campaigned in Colombia to investigate the killings. But Colombian authorities have cleared the plants’ operators, and other leads have gone nowhere. In response, Sinaltrainal took the cause abroad, rallying activists in places such as Toronto, making the killings a topic at the annual International Labor Conference in Geneva in June — and airing their case in Miami federal court. The lawsuit, says Collingsworth, the Washington lawyer who represents Sinaltrainal in the case, is part of a two-pronged strategy by Sinaltrainal and their supporters that is aimed at forcing Coca-Cola to use its leverage to end the violence surrounding the plants in Colombia. “Like in all cases, we were asked for help,” says Collingsworth. “In March, [Sinaltrainal] came to us. I was asked what the options might be. They were quite excited when they heard about the option of a lawsuit.” The other option is a consumer campaign that mobilizes union members and students who have been active in an anti-sweatshop campaign, according to Collingsworth. Could it amount to a boycott? “Boycott is a strong word,” Collingsworth says, adding that a previous campaign by the ILRF resulted in Coke’s ousting of a franchisee in Guatemala. “There’s a history. In Guatemala in the 1970s, three union members were murdered in Coca-Cola plants. We began a campaign in the U.S. Once the campaign hit their bottom line, Coca-Cola turned around.” The activists also hint at more lawsuits. “There’s a discussion about suing other companies in Colombia,” Collingsworth says. “I’m not going to name names.” However, a list of abuses against union members compiled by Sinaltrainal in 1997 repeatedly mentions Nestle of Colombia, a subsidiary of the Swiss food giant, and another Nestle unit, Cicolac Ltda. Cicolac’s headquarters were the target of a bomb attack in 1999. The rival union activist concedes that the violence has not been monopolized by right-wing paramilitaries. But, he says, there can’t be enough court proceedings against multinational corporations. “I would like to see somebody sue Telefonica in Spain,” he says, referring to the Spanish telecom giant. “That would make public some of the diabolic things happening in Colombian unions. The world should know about what’s going on in Colombia.”

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