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Killer Coke Campaign: The PR Nightmare That Won't Go Away

A lawsuit filed last week in New York State Supreme Court opens up a new front for Coca-Cola (KO) in the ugly controversy over violence against union workers in some of Coke's international bottling plants. Nine Guatemalan workers allege they were subject to a "campaign of violence," including being shot at and fielding death threats against their family after they engaged in union activities.

The suit doesn't seem to have a lot of merit -- Coke is only a minority shareholder in Incasa, its Guatemalan bottling plant, and it's hard to see how the company can be legally held accountable -- but for the Atlanta-based beverage giant, these allegations remain a big, nagging problem.

This is hardly the first time bottling plant workers have accused Coke of somehow being responsible for violence against them. Coke has won several previous legal challenges and been cleared in a report by the UN's International Labor Organization, but the company still seems unable to satisfy its opposition. In many circles, Coke is still a horrible, evil multinational corporation that cares little if the impoverished South American and Latin American people who bottle their products are threatened, harassed and even killed.

This perception lingers in large part because of a pugnacious activist named Ray Rogers, who for the past nine years has been running a campaign called "Killer Coke." Rogers has been able to get considerable media attention for his accusations that Coke is complicit in several 1990-2002 killings at its bottling plants in Columbia. And several years ago, he succeeded in getting at least ten universities to stop carrying Coke products.

The latest allegations out of Guatemala illustrate that Coke isn't doing enough to lean on its bottling companies to safeguard workers, or putting enough pressure on the Guatemalan government, which labor groups have accused of being behind an increase in attacks.

The pattern of horrible violence against union workers in Columbia and Guatemala clearly isn't Coke's fault. But as one of the world's largest brands, the company has a big, tempting target on its back. Angry workers and left wing activists are smart to go after the company as a way of trying to bring about local change.

But Coke seems to resent this and comes off as defensive, issuing head-in-the-sand comments like this one: "Coca-Cola bottler employees in Columbia enjoy extensive, normal relations with multiple unions and are provided with safe working conditions there." That may be true now, but people need to hear loud and clear about all the great steps Coke is taking to help improve safety conditions at its bottling plants. (Details of some of these steps are buried on the company's web site.)

It also doesn't help that executives in Atlanta sent threatening letters to the producers of a documentary about all the Killer Coke allegations, prompting bloggers to jump all over it and making the company look like it has something to hide.

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