April 15, 2003, 11:45PM

Union to protest at Coke annual meeting


Coca-Cola's plant managers used paramilitary groups in Colombia to kill and intimidate union organizers, groups planning to protest the company's annual meeting here today claim.

Protesters want the Atlanta company's board to discuss the matter today and use its influence to stop the alleged abuses in Colombia.

But Coke officials say the allegations are false and that the "Campaign to Stop Killer Coke" is a ploy by the unions to draw attention to their own political and social objectives.

"The allegations are totally false," said Rodrigo Calderon, vice president of public relations and communications for Coca-Cola Latin America in Mexico City. "Labor groups are falsely trying to connect Coke with right-wing paramilitary groups. They're just using our name to get headlines."

He added that investigations conducted by Coke and the Colombian government have exonerated the company.

But according to the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, which is run by trade unions such as the United Steelworkers of America, the International Labor Rights Fund and the Colombian labor union Sinaltrainal, paramilitary groups have killed at least eight union leaders.

In a related move, Amalgamated Bank LongView Collective Investment Fund, which owns 819,209 shares of Coke stock, submitted a shareholder resolution asking the company to promise to allow all workers to join trade unions and bargain collectively as well as promise that employees won't be intimidated.

The fund, which invests union pensions, told shareholders that it is worried that reports of Coca-Cola's alleged human rights abuses could damage its reputation and hurt its stock price. Coca-Cola is recommending that shareholders reject the resolution.

The investment fund points to a lawsuit filed against Coca-Cola and its bottlers after union leader Isidro Gil was shot to death by gunmen in Carepa, Colombia, in 1996. Gil was one of more than 1,500 Colombia trade unionists killed during the past decade, according to the investment fund.

The lawsuit alleges that the plant manager told workers he had given paramilitary gunmen an order to destroy the union and that two days after Gil's death, plant managers passed out union resignation forms. Many employees resigned, and wages fell by about two-thirds, the lawsuit says.

Earlier this month, Coca-Cola was dismissed from the lawsuit, but the two bottlers, Pan American Beverages and Bebidas, remain in the case.

The International Labor Rights Fund last week appealed the dismissal of Coca-Cola.

Cornish Hitchcock, a lawyer representing the LongView Collective Investment Fund in Washington, D.C., said the fund would like to see Coca-Cola adopt a human rights code of conduct for its bottlers similar to the codes it has with its suppliers.

Calderon said the bottlers have their own code of conduct that is similar, and it is the bottlers' responsibility to enforce it.

He said Coca-Cola provides bodyguards to union officials, cell phones, armored vehicles and loans to beef up home security.

The shareholders meeting is at the Four Seasons Hotel at 10 a.m. today. The Harris County AFL-CIO is organizing the protest, according to secretary-treasurer Richard Shaw, who is a Coke shareholder himself.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  April 17, 2003, 11:39PM

Saving comp days can be a treat, if it's truly an option


WHEN Congress passed the overtime law in 1938, it tried to impose a financial penalty for companies that worked their employees more than 40 hours a week.

And, for the most part, that rule has worked, keeping employers from turning their factories or offices into sweatshops.

If you end up working more than 40 hours a week and you're eligible for overtime, you receive -- unless your boss is breaking the law -- 150 percent of your regular rate of pay for each hour.

But lots of folks prefer the time off rather than the money. So in many workplaces, there is a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" provision in place for banking comp time for use later in the year.

It's an arrangement that works well when the employee and supervisor agree.

And again this year, Republicans in Congress have introduced another bill to allow employees to take time off for overtime rather than money -- sort of legalizing what so many companies are already doing.

It's common-sense legislation that's two decades overdue, said Sarah F. Pierce, manager of employment policy at the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

The bills, introduced by Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-NH., are family friendly and designed to meet the needs of the 21st century, she said.

Under the proposals, companies could allow employees to accrue up to 160 hours of comp time and take the time off at any time.

An employer would have to show it's truly disruptive before refusing a request for time off, Pierce said.

"On its face, it's purely about choice," she said, pointing to the success of the public sector, which was permitted by Congress 18 years ago to substitute paid overtime with comp time.

But the leaders of two government employee groups in Houston argue that banking overtime, vacation and holiday time has been anything but successful.

Harris County deputy sheriffs can bank up to 240 hours of comp time, but the department is so short-staffed that no one can take it when they want a day or two off, said Ed Christensen, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, which has more than 2,000 members.

It's only when a top officer realizes the buildup is too high that deputies are directed to take some time off, he said.

"It's not flexible at all," Christensen said. "It's a damn joke."

He said the situation has become so upsetting that deputies are quitting to find other jobs.

You just end up working more overtime, he said, which means that the county doesn't have to hire as many employees.

It's a sore subject with Christensen, who sued Harris County over whether it was the employees or county that got to choose when to take the banked time off. He lost the argument when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Harris County in 1999.

Public information officer Capt. Robert Van Pelt said he couldn't comment because the person in charge of human resources was not available.

Firefighters in Houston get paid overtime when they work more than 46.7 hours a week.

That's the way the firefighters prefer it, but it didn't start out that way, according to Steve Williams, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 with 3,400 members.

During the mid-1980s, when government offices had the option of banking hours, the firefighters were interested in comp time, Williams said. But the fire chief at the time refused and said cash would be paid.

Now, the situation has completely come full circle, with the city preferring to bank the hours but the firefighters preferring cash, Williams said.

The department is so short-handed that it can't let the firefighters off for holidays and vacations, said Williams, who has, himself, more than 720 hours of holiday time banked.

And he said there are many others who have 700 hours of vacation time booked that they can't take.

The shortages are so severe that junior employees -- those with less than 20 years of service -- can only use two to four days of vacation each year, he said.

They're paid for the banked hours when they leave, but by then they've missed family reunions and vacations, he said.

"So you can understand why the firefighters don't want to book their overtime," said Williams. "It would just be more time on the books that we couldn't take."

The Houston Fire Department acknowledges the problem in taking days off and is continually working to increase staffing levels, according to spokeswoman Julissa Guerrero. The department hired 350 trainees this year and plans to hire 390 more next year, she wrote in an e-mail.

"Every necessary step is being made to ensure that Houston firefighters receive and take advantage of all the benefits offered by the city of Houston," wrote Guerrero.

Kelly Ross, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO in Washington, scoffs at the notion that the bills currently before Congress would allow employees to chose between money or time.

It would be so much cheaper for companies to provide time rather than money, said Ross.

The House bill is moving along. Last week it passed muster with the House Education and Workforce Committee and is expected to be debated by the full House on May 5.

While Ross wouldn't be surprised to see the bill clear the House the way it has in previous years, she's expecting it to bog down in the Senate again, where it will probably meet another Democratic filibuster.

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 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  April 17, 2003, 12:16AM

Human rights, salary at issue for Coca-Cola


Coca-Cola should pay its executives less, stop sponsoring National Public Radio and use its influence in Colombia to encourage greater protections of human rights.

These were just a few of the more controversial proposals members of the Atlanta company's board of directors fielded from some of the 400 shareholders gathered here Wednesday for Coke's annual meeting.

Though Chairman and CEO Douglas Daft, who earned $5.5 million in bonuses and salary last year, said he would consider the matter of executive pay, the other two proposals were voted down by shareholders by wide margins.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal concerned allegations that the company's plant managers used paramilitary groups to intimidate and kill eight union organizers at a bottling plant in Barrancabermeja, Colombia.

As about 40 members of a group calling itself Campaign to Stop Killer Coke marched outside the Four Seasons hotel, some shareholders inside urged the board to adopt a proposal calling for greater protection of human rights in Colombia.

William Mendoza, a union leader at the plant in Barrancabermeja, said that he is one of 65 union members under the threat of assassination by gangs. He said that eight Colombian union organizers have been killed by the gangs, and several labor organizations believe Coke and its bottlers are connected to the crimes.

Mendoza presented a petition with more than 1 million signatures.

Coke denies that it is in any way responsible, and Daft said that a U.S. District Court in Miami dismissed the company from lawsuits alleging wrongful conduct.

Richard Shaw of the AFL-CIO implored the company to take a more active role in helping protect the union organizers.

Deval Partrick, Coke's general counsel, said the company has gone as far as providing security for Colombian individuals being threatened.

Some shareholders also asked the board to stop funding National Public Radio because they believe it gives an unbalanced account of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Several shareholder proposals addressed executive stock compensations and sought to either curb or more greatly scrutinize financial rewards given to top officials.

Shareholders seemed more than willing to voice their opinions.

While Daft stood at the podium, one shareholder described executive compensation as "excessive, ridiculous and obscene."

Daft received a base salary of $1.5 million in 2002, and $4 million in bonuses, up from $3.5 million in bonuses in 2001.

Debbie Wang, a stock analyst with Morningstar, said that for a $17 billion company such as Coke, Daft is getting a "fairly reasonable" salary, considering that, in her opinion, he is steering the company in a positive direction since coming on board in early 2000.

Coke, earlier in the day, reported that strong sales of Vanilla Coke and Diet Coke helped boost first-quarter profits 14 percent from a year ago.

For the quarter, net income rose to $835 million, or 34 cents a share, on revenues of $4.5 billion. That compared to a net loss of $194, or 8 cents a share, a year ago, on revenues of $4.1 billion.

Despite the improved earnings, investors were disappointed in the company's 4 percent worldwide growth. They had been expecting a much larger growth rate.

As a result, the company's stock closed down $2.63 to $39.90.

Wang believes the market overreacted.

Given the challenging business environment and unusual circumstances the company faced over the quarter, it was actually a solid performance, said Wang, who believes the company should benefit from the introduction of new cola products and a major marketing campaign.

Chronicle reporter L.M. Sixel contributed to this story.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle