Counter-Cola: A Multinational History of the Global Corporation

Challenges to the Coca-Cola System

The 1960s and 1970s also brought a wave of direct challenges to the Coca-Cola system, which accused the Company of repatriation of profits from the poorest countries to the richest, of pushing people in the developing world to embrace consumer capitalism, of partnering with local elites sometimes complicit in repressive political and economic systems internationally, and benefiting from the rise of US political and economic power in the world.  Socialist governments nationalized Coca-Cola plants as exemplars of economic and cultural neocolonialism; in Cuba following the Revolution, and in Chile in the early 1970s; with calls for such action frequently taking place across the global south.

The early 1970s also saw attacks on Coca-Cola plants and personnel as part of armed revolutionary movements against political and economic oppression, including military dictatorships seen to be colluding with U.S. capital interests.  Some revolutionary groups used the threat of violence to push companies to cede to workers’ demands for improved pay or working conditions while others funded their struggles by extorting corporations with threats against places of business or by kidnapping corporate executives. In Guerrero, Mexico in 1971, that city’s millionaire Coca-Cola bottling company owner was kidnapped by rural guerrillas demanding the release of political prisoners to Cuba and the payment of a $200,000 ransom. Fighting the military dictatorship in Argentina, the leftist Peronist guerillas of the Montoneros bombed a number of U.S. corporate locations including Coca-Cola.  The Company was forced to pay out large ransoms to the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación (FAL) and other groups for the safe return of Coca-Cola managers after a series of kidnappings.[i] In addition to working with the U.S. and Argentine state forces, such as directly employing army intelligence officers involved in the detention, torture, and killing of leftists in what became known as the Guerra Sucia, The Coca-Cola Company dispatched its own anti-Communist covert operations specialist who received international press after reportedly publicly informing the kidnappers, “We will kill you.  We’ll go after your wife.  We’ll kill her.”[ii]

The Company was also attacked for complicity in the politics of the governments where it chose to do business.  In 1968 Arab League nations instituted the Arab Boycott of several corporations doing business in Israel, including Coca-Cola, severely limiting the Company’s business in the Middle East and North Africa. 

The Company regularly battled its workers with labor militancy flaring up in various parts of the world in this period.  In 1971 when a bottling plant in Italy declared bankruptcy rather than recognize the demands of a strong union, the workers took over the plant.[iii]  In Uruguay in 1972, bottling workers revolted and occupied the bottling plant when two co-workers were arrested for involvement in a leftist “liberation movement.”[iv] 

Adaptations of dependency theory became prevalent in more popular works like Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations (1974), which specifically identified The Coca-Cola Company, accusing it of marketing “globaloney” and causing “commerciogenic malnutrition” by exhorting people in the developing world to embrace consumerism, and to spend their money on Cokes rather than on needed nutrients.

Thus, even “at home” in the U.S., The Coca-Cola Company was under attack by both the state and social movements.  The Federal Trade Commission filed complaints against The Coca-Cola Company for misleading advertising and antitrust, charging that the contracts with franchise bottlers effectively produced local monopolies that reduced competition and led to increased prices.[v]  Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, speaking before Senator George McGovern’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, accused the Company of selling a drink with “’absolutely no vitamins or proteins.’”[vi] As the first Earth Day approached in 1970, Coca-Cola CEO J. Paul Austin was especially concerned about the environmental movement, which saw the Company as “’littering the landscape’” with non-returnable bottles, fleets of delivery trucks and a country speckled with billboards, making the Company an “’ideal target’” for protest, as he put it.[vii]

In Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid citrus fields César Chávez was organizing the primarily African American migrant workforce to fight for better pay and working conditions, and together with news reporting, drew public attention to the Company’s labor practices and the plight of the farm worker.[viii]  Operation Breadbasket, an Atlanta organization of ministers, targeted Coca-Cola for their employment practices, demanding that they hire black workers for their production lines and remove segregated employee bathrooms and locker rooms.[ix]   At the same time, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leveled a thinly veiled threat of a boycott of Coca-Cola over the lack of representation of African Americans in their advertising.

[i] Suasnna W. Purnell and Eleanor S. Wainstein, The Problems of U.S. Businesses Operating Abroad in Terrorist Environments (The Rand Corporation, Prepared for the U.S. Department of Commerce, November 1981), 64-80; Michael Newton, The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings (New York:  Fact on File, 2002), p. 55. 115, 154, 167.
[ii] “How Coke Runs a Foreign Empire,” Business Week, August 25, 1973, 41 cited in Ibid. 302, 541.; “Memorandum of Conversation between American Consul General Goodwin Shapiro and President of Coca-Cola, S.A. Sr. Tomás Ornstein:  Information Concerning the Disappearance of Two French Catholic Nuns,” January 16, 1978, The National Security Archive, Argentina Project, S200000044.
[iii] Pendergrast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola:  The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. 302.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Allen, 371.
[vi] Allen, 356.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Pendergrast, 293.
[ix] “Ministers Reach Agreement With Coca-Cola Bottling Co.,” Atlanta Daily World, October 10, 1963, p. 1.; “Selective Buying Said Still On Coke,” Atlanta Daily World, September 10, 1963, p. 2.; “Don’t Buy Coca-Cola,” Operation Breadbasket Advertisement, Atlanta Daily World, September 15, 1963, p. 5.

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