Activists question the soda giant's role in Africa, but can they just leave Bill Cosby out of it?
Chants of "Coke lies, workers die!" resonated across a clear autumn sky as several hundred AIDS activists converged on the Erie Avenue Coca-Cola bottling plant last Thursday.
Organized by the local ACT UP chapter and Health Gap, a national AIDS and human rights activism group, the raucous and at times misleading rally was part of a "Global Day of Action against Coca-Cola." Protesters called on the "Soda King" to provide free AIDS treatment for their workforce in Africa.
A 25-foot inflatable bottle inscribed with the words "Coke's Medical Apartheid Kills" provided a backdrop for the morning's activities. Body bags, symbolizing workers who died from what protestors termed "Coke's neglect," were placed at the scene, and activists dumped 2-liter bottles of simulated blood at the feet of company security guards.
Coke offers full health coverage to its 1,200 corporate workers in Africa, but until recently the company did not provide any coverage for the 58,000 who work in 40 independently operated Coke bottling factories on the continent.
Coke, which has been bombarded with negative publicity since the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona earlier this year, recently announced a $5 million cost-sharing plan, which would begin to expand bottlers' healthcare benefits for HIV/AIDS. But activists are unimpressed.
"Instead of papering over their medical neglect with more announcements, we demand Coke roll out treatment programs for all their bottlers and distributors in Africa," says ACT UP's Clare Martin. "Coke is profiteering from a dying labor force."
Citing privacy issues, Coke spokesperson Sonya Soutus cannot discuss how many African bottling plant workers actually suffer from HIV/AIDS, but claims Coke is aware of the responsibility that comes with being the largest private employer in a continent that carries more than 70 percent of the global HIV/AIDS burden.
"Coca-Cola has long been committed to working with the bottling companies to ensure that all their workers have full healthcare coverage," says Soutus, "and keeping in mind that we only own equity in five of the bottling factories, Coke has gone above and beyond what is responsible of us."
The Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company released a statement declaring that since it was an independent, privately owned company, it could speak only of its own policies, which include HIV/AIDS treatment coverage.
A pool of investors, including Julius Erving and Bill Cosby, bought the Northeast Philly factory from Coca-Cola in 1984. An ACT UP press release spoke of "bringing the message to Dr. J and Bill Cosby."
Thursday's MC, ACT UP member Asia Russell, declared that as the plant's "main investors," the two had a "moral responsibility to stand in solidarity" with the protesters.
Dr. J, now executive vice president with the Orlando Magic, was unavailable for comment, but Cosby's agent, David Brokaw, spoke on his client's behalf: "Mr. Cosby is no longer affiliated with Coca-Cola or the Philadelphia company in any fashion."
Brokaw claimed to have notified ACT UP of Cosby's noninvolvement with Coke the night before the protest, and Kris Hermes of ACT UP admitted organizers did receive his clarifying email. But it apparently didn't arrive in time to keep the homegrown comedian from becoming a protest target. ("We slipped on that one," Hermes said later.)
Now looking to turn her whipping boy into a spokesperson, Russell contends that whether or not Cosby is an actual investor is irrelevant. "What is important is that he lend his voice to draw attention to the issue."