Coca Cola's Role in the Assassinations of Union Leaders Explored in Powerful New Documentary

"The Coca-Cola Case" explores allegations of tragedy at bottling plants in Colombia, trade union murder capital of the world.


"As soon as the union was formed, the trouble started," intones the brother of murdered Colombian union leader Isidro Gil ominously at the start of "The Coca-Cola Case," a documentary co-production by the NFB and Argus Films that is about to have its New York premiere.

The 86-minute film chronicles the relentless efforts of American lawyers trying to take the soft drink giant to court over the killings of 10 union leaders, who represented workers at Coke bottling plants in Colombia.

The documentary splits its time nicely between two battles: the court fight waged by Daniel Kovalik, lawyer for the United Steelworkers union, on behalf of Columbian union members, and the public awareness crusade of Ray Rogers, who directed the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke.

Well-shot and polished, this social justice procedural can sometimes lag -- primarily because it relies on talking heads and doesn't delve enough into the lives of Coke workers and those of the brave union activists in Colombia. Of course, the directors -- German Guiterrez and Carmen Garcia -- would have made many editorial decisions regarding their focus. I just would have appreciated just a little more on the daily struggles of the unionists.

That aside, "The Coca-Cola Case" is a fascinating portrayal of corporate irresponsibility and greed. Kovalik himself is a great character, one who tirelessly pours himself into the cause as he spearheads the legal battle to get compensation for the families of the dead unionists.

The effort to squeeze millions out of Coca-Cola Inc. began back in 2001, when the case was filed in a U.S. court. The documentary follows Kovalik over a three-year period, from 2006 through 2008, as he attempts to bring closure to the seemingly never ending legal machinations of Coke.

"They have the money to keep fucking us," states one of the Colombian plaintiffs.

Overriding the case are the chilling facts. Between 1990 and 2002, 10 union leaders connected to Coke workers were murdered. Kovalik and the union believe paramilitaries hired by the pop drink's bottlers are responsible for the killings. (According to the film's press release, Colombia is considered the trade union murder capital of the world. Since 2002, more than 470 labor leaders have been killed.)

Gil was shot dead in 1996, just a day after the union contract had expired and was due to be re-negotiated. Almost immediately, all the workers at his plant were herded into the manager's office and given two choices: either sign a letter of resignation or die. They all signed. The monthly wage in that plant plummeted from $380 U.S./month to only $100/month.

Repeated denials by Coke officials

Coke officials have fastidiously denied any connection between the company and paramilitaries. Coke's explanations are captivating for all the wrong reasons -- throughout the documentary, the company's attempts to justify its indifference to problems in Colombia, Guatemala and India are infuriating.

Tellingly, the only way filmmakers could get Coke's response to any of the issues is to run responses by the company's CEO at the time, Neville Isdell, at annual shareholder's meetings.

It actually helps the film that Isdell is up on a podium, a hefty capitalist in an immaculate three-piece suit, trying to deflect some harsh questions from his own shareholders.

At one point, Coca-Cola says that it has no corporate responsibility for what happens at its franchises outside of the U.S.

As Kovalik points out, when pressure was brought to bear on Coke to solve the problem of murdered unionists in Guatemala, the company managed to persuade its main bottler to sell the franchise to new owners. The killings stopped.

"We know that Coke has that kind of influence," points out Kovalik.

The film's other narrative -- the Killer Coke campaign -- is nicely woven into the legal story. After all, in corporate combat, consumer choice is the key weapon.

Rogers, whose New York-based Corporate Campaign Inc. champions human rights and environmental causes, bursts off the screen with his energy as he attempts to transform the minds of university students all over the U.S.

He speaks at college campuses and even disrupts a Coke shareholder's meeting in Atlanta. Rogers says his campaign is probably responsible for a one per cent drop in Coke sales and he considers that a victory.

There are intriguing side-trips as some college students opt to support the consequences of what they call the free market. It is disheartening to hear students say workers in other countries have a choice to work for Coke.

Such scenes remind one of the immense scope of the social justice battle and the importance of single-minded crusaders such as Kovalik and Rogers.

As the film winds to an end, one wonders how the Colombian case will be resolved. The conclusion is a lot more philosophical than financial. Remember that slogan, "Have a Coke and a smile"? Well, this doc will leave you UN-smiling. I'll leave it at that.

"The Coca-Cola Case" will have itsNew York premierescreening this Monday, April 26, at the Tishman Auditorium at the NYU Law School. The film is currently on tour in Canada, sponsored by the Canadian National Film Board.

Here's the trailer.

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June Chua is a Malaysian-born Canadian journalist who has worked as a writer, reporter and producer -- spending a dozen years with the CBC, where she worked in radio, television and online. She is currently a freelance writer and filmmaker and completed her first independent documentary, Twin Trek, in 2007.