On February 25, 2010, Josè Armando Palacios and Josè Alberto Vicente Chàvez, along with their families, filed a lawsuit against the Coca-Cola Company in the Supreme Court of the State of New York. They accused the company of allowing its bottling and processing plants in Guatemala to engage in a campaign of violence against the two men, both prominent union leaders. Both were employees of Industria de Cafè SA (INCASA), which owns and operates a coffee and Coca-Cola processing plant in Guatemala City and a bottling plant in Retalhuleu, Western Guatemala. At various times, both had been leaders of the INCASA Workers’ Trade Union, known as SITINCA, which is affiliated with the International Union of Food Workers (IUF).
Palacios, a 27-year veteran employee of INCASA, received multiple death threats and survived at least one violent attempt on his life after joining SITINCA. In April 2005, weeks after armed men broke into his house and threatened members of his family, Palacios was fired without cause. The threats continued for months, as Palacios refused severance pay and demanded to be reinstated. In early 2006, he fled to the United States after narrowly surviving another attempt on his life. He alleges that assassins mistakenly murdered a man that looked like him in front of his house.
José Alberto Vicente Chávez worked at one of INCASA’s bottling plants in Retalhuleu and had been a prominent union leader since the 1990s, for which he had been threatened regularly. In early 2008, after participating in collective bargaining negotiations in Guatemala City, Chávez returned home to his family, who planned to pick him up at a bus stop. While waiting, they were attacked by 4 armed men who brutally murdered his son and nephew and gang-raped his 16-year-old daughter. The remaining family members have been in hiding ever since.
Anti-union violence is widespread throughout much of Latin America. In Guatemala, it is not only widespread, but effective: only 8 percent of Guatemala’s formal workforce is unionized. It is hard to determine exactly how much Guatemala’s pervasive violence is intended to discourage unions because so few cases are investigated. However, it is clear that anti-union violence has seen a sharp increase in the last few years, with one study cited by the U.S. State Department estimating that incidents of anti-union violence increased by 255 percent between 2008 and 2009.
This is not the first lawsuit regarding labor rights of Latin American subsidiary employees of Coca-Cola. The plaintiffs are represented by Terry Collingsworth, a veteran labor and human rights attorney, who brought a similar case on behalf of Colombian union leaders who alleged that Coca-Cola subsidiaries had collaborated with right-wing paramilitaries to intimidate and murder labor organizers. In August 2009, an appeals court upheld the dismissal of the case, claiming that the prosecution did not provide sufficient convincing evidence of Coke’s liability for the violence. Like its predecessor, the current case hinges on the lawyer’s ability to convince the court of Coke’s "control and direct stake" in the operations of its subsidiaries, in this case, INCASA.
As in the Colombia case, Coke denies any responsibility. In a statement to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Coke spokesperson Angela Harrell said, "We maintain there is no truth in these allegations. The fact of the matter is, we haven’t been involved. No knowledge of the violence, no involvement in the violence." To date, Coke does not appear to have made any other substantial responses to the allegations in the lawsuit.
The case builds on anti-corporate sentiment that has roots in student, labor, and "localist" activism. Thanks in large part to student activist groups like the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, in recent years Coke has made attempts to bolster its public image with respect to human rights. Coke’s director of Global Labor Relations claims that all of its bottlers are required to adhere to the company’s Workplace Rights Policy, a vague statement that touts adherence to international rights treaties.
The latest complaint argues that in annual meetings since 2005, Coke has claimed that it "has control over all of its bottlers and that it exercises this control…. Coke can inspect these bottlers for whether they abide by international human rights conventions and local laws, and can force them to abide by such conventions/laws upon penalty of stripping them of their bottling franchise." Further, as Palacios hid in Guatemala in January 2006, Coke released a memo regarding an agreement between SITINCA and INCASA and pledged to "take urgent action" if the labor agreement was breached.
While Coke’s commitment to human rights is nothing more than a self-serving publicity ploy (Coke’s corporate responsibility office is managed through its Public Policy and Corporate Reputation Council), it may have unwittingly backed itself into a legal corner. If a court finds Coca-Cola guilty, the case could bring the company to task for the anti-labor violence and set legal precedent for international corporate responsibility.
Lisa Skeen works as a paralegal with a legal-aid organization that assists low-income tenants in Seattle. She is passionately interested in U.S.-Latin American policy and human rights law.