Labor Leaders Critical of Patrick, ex-Coca-Cola Board Member
As he explores a potential race for governor in Massachusetts, Deval
Patrick is drawing criticism from labor leaders who say he ignored
allegations about labor and human rights problems at the Coca-Cola
Co. while he was the corporation's vice president and chief legal
Patrick's nearly four-year tenure at the top echelons of the multinational
corporation is considered by strategists to be one of the strongest
selling points of his resume. But labor leaders who have crusaded
against Coca-Cola and its international operations say he must shoulder
responsibility for his role in fending off serious complaints, including
its alleged failure to protect workers and labor organizers at a bottling
company in Colombia from paramilitary groups.
Coca-Cola denies the allegations and says the courts, in the United
States and Colombia, have exonerated the company. But labor leaders
and human rights activists are singling out Patrick as he weighs running
''Deval Patrick got paid a lot of money to help cover up Coca-Cola's
misdeeds and crimes and help keep his mouth shut," said Ray Rogers,
a longtime labor organizer and human rights activist. Rogers is director
of the New York-based Campaign to Stop Killer Coke/Corporate Campaign
Inc., a group that claims its mission is to undermine Coca-Cola's
image, to cut off their marketsl, and pressure the company's top policy
makers, institutional investors, and creditors.
The human rights issues in Colombia are one of several serious charges
that confronted Coca-Cola during Patrick's tenure. A whistle-blower
who worked for the company, Mark Whitley, alleged that the company
committed accounting fraud, created slush funds, and manipulated markets.
He was fired and sued Coca-Cola for $44.4 million. The firm also came
under fire for its use of marketing strategies that targeted schoolchildren
in the United States. Some studies have linked consuming sugar-sweetened
soft drinks to growing incidents of obesity in American children.
In India, Coca-Cola has faced charges that it has created serious
pollution problems and allowed a high level of pesticides in their
products. A Coca-Cola plant is blamed for extracting vast amounts
of water from the ground, drying up wells, and adding polluting sludge
to fields. Local activists and political leaders are demanding the
plant close, but Coca-Cola is fighting them in local courts, saying
the charges are ''totally false."
But others who have worked with Patrick defend his actions, saying
that he tried to be a progressive force within the company as it dealt
with the allegations.
''What he effectively did was to deny responsibility on behalf of
the company and then offer to do a fact-finding mission, which by
any measure was a relatively progressive way to respond," said Andrew
Hanson, an environmental lawyer.
Hanson challenged Patrick at an awards dinner in October 2003, over
Coca-Cola's potential culpability in the human rights abuses. At the
time, Patrick, who was being honored by Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit
group that promotes public service legal work for law students, told
the crowd he would send an independent fact-finding group to Colombia.
When his superiors at Coca-Cola pulled the plug on the mission last
February, Patrick resigned, although agreeing to serve until the end
of the year.
At the time of the dinner, the multinational corporation was entangled
in a 2001 federal lawsuit filed in Miami alleging that it failed to
protect its workers at a Coca-Cola bottling operation in Colombia
from serious human rights violations that included the murder of seven
labor leaders at the hands of paramilitary thugs over the past dozen
In an interview, Patrick defended his role, and pointed to his background
as a litigator for civil rights and as the former assistant attorney
general for civil rights under President Clinton. ''How can anyone
say that I would have an active role in degrading anyone's dignity?"
Patrick said that while at Coca-Cola he was able to balance his legal
responsibilities to the company with his sense of justice and commitment
''It's unnecessary to separate those two," Patrick said. ''It's the
duty of the general counsel to protect the interest of the shareholders.
I do not think that requires or has ever required I leave my conscience
at the door."
Patrick's resignation early last year shook Coca-Cola's board of directors
and precipitated the pending departure of CEO Douglas N. Daft, who
had called off the independent investigation in Colombia. The board
rallied to Patrick's defense. Patrick said he is convinced the company
will revive the mission.
Patrick would not respond directly when asked whether his resignation
from Coca-Cola was directly related to the flare-up over his role
in creating an independent investigation of the Colombian operations.
The company was dismissed as a defendant in the Colombian case over
a year ago, when a judge agreed with its claim that Coca-Cola did
have sufficiently controlling interest in the bottling plant. But
the issue, driven by anti-Coca-Cola activists and labor leaders, still
lingers. The plaintiffs -- a coalition representing those who had
been murdered and abused, as well as the United Steel Workers and
a Colombian union that has organized the bottle plant -- are appealing
Patrick said he worked to defuse the crisis over the whistle-blower
suit, settling the case for $100,000 and getting the company to agree
to investigate Whitley's charges.
Patrick's defense did little to soften the opposition from some American
Terry Collingsworth, executive director at the International Labor
Rights Fund (which is pursuing the legal case), said Patrick failed
to act on the allegations and did so only after he was confronted
at the Equal Justice Works' dinner. He said Patrick still has not
spoken about what Collingsworth says are proven human rights abuses
and murders at the bottling plant.
Ron Oswald, the general secretary of the International Workers Federation,
a Geneva-based labor group that represents 10 million to 12 million
workers around the world -- including several hundred thousands at
Coke bottling firms -- offers a different labor perspective. He said
his group believes that many of the allegations of human rights and
trade union abuses against Coca Cola are ''unfounded" and that, when
the issues do arise, the company responds appropriately. He also said
Patrick was effective in persuading Coke executives to deal with the
issues in Colombia, although failing in the end.
''My impression is that he was a progressive force, and he felt that
the only way the company could extract itself from the situation was
to create a credible and independent investigation into the events
in Colombia," Oswald said. ''In corporate America, that is quite a
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