Protesters lined Seventh Avenue outside Madison Square Garden today to press criticisms of Coca-Cola Co., which was holding its annual shareholders meeting inside.
With labor and environmental activists were dozens of African American Coca-Cola employees who said conditions have not improved at the Atlanta-based company since it agreed in November 2000 to pay $192.5 million to settle a class-action race-discrimination lawsuit and promised to change the way it manages, promotes and treats minority employees.
Greg Clark, one of 17 employees pressing individual discrimination suits against Coca-Cola, led the African American protesters, many of whom said blacks remain underrepresented in top management at the company, are paid less than white employees and fired more often. Clark accused the company of engaging in a public relations offensive to convey a new, more racially sensitive image while failing to back it up with concrete changes.
"Coca-Cola has done a wonderful job of fooling the public into believing that the racial discrimination lawsuit is over," Clark said. "It's not over. And I'm not interested in settling. The only way to expose the racism at Coca-Cola is to have our day in court."
Clark flipped through a glossy brochure given to shareholders at the meeting and pointed to a photo and description of a black female employee who, Clark said, is suing the company for discrimination. "They feature her, they market her," he said, shaking his head.
Coca-Cola spokeswoman Sonya Soutus did not comment on the photo but said the company remains "committed to a diverse workplace." She pointed to the work of a diversity committee mandated by the 2000 agreement and headed by former labor secretary Alexis Herman. "We are working diligently to implement the agreement. And from our perspective we are certainly making progress."
Soutus did not offer figures to show progress, calling the effort "an ongoing process." Protesters handed out material claiming that 16 percent of the Coke workforce is black, but that blacks have just 1.5 percent of top-level jobs.
Other protesters accused Coke of failing to cover the cost of HIV/AIDS treatment for many workers in Africa, where the company is among the largest private employers.
Alba Chavez, a 21-year-old University of Maryland student, said that after promising to extend HIV/AIDS coverage to all its workers in Africa, Coke "recalculated" and now offers such coverage to only 1.5 percent of its African workforce.
"Most of these workers are from the managerial corps," Chavez said. "In other words, it's medical apartheid, because most of the people in the managerial corps are white and most of the factory and distribution workers are African."
Coke spokeswoman Soutus said Chavez's information was "not quite accurate." She said the company covers its 1,500 "direct employees" in Africa for HIV/AIDS treatment while the company's "bottling partners" are working toward offering their employees the same coverage.
On the other side of Seventh Avenue, Teamsters union president James P. Hoffa criticized Coke for its treatment of workers in Africa, Guatemala, the Philippines, Colombia and elsewhere. He said the company abdicates its duty to those workers by saying it contracts out much of its work and has little control over what benefits the contractors extend to their workers.
"That's not good enough," Hoffa said. "They control the formula [for the signature Coca-Cola beverage], they control the name, they control every aspect of the company. Are you trying to tell me they can't control their labor relations?" Soutus said the company was working with its global partners to help improve conditions for workers.