USA: Coke Chairman Focuses on Diversity

By | 20 April 2000

Coca-Cola executives promised Wednesday to make the soft drink giant's culture more diverse as the Rev. Jesse Jackson warned that he would support a national boycott of Coke products if the company doesn't offer a "quick, honorable, fair resolution" to a racial discrimination suit.

Coke held its annual meeting at a downtown theater here in an atmosphere of protest against its treatment of black workers and about how little recycled plastic it uses in its packaging.

After the meeting, a group that staged a five-day protest bus journey from Atlanta, where Coca-Cola is based, called for an international boycott of all Coke products.

But Jackson said the "justice riders" had been "pushed to the brink" by their frustration and that his Rainbow PUSH coalition wanted Coke to have enough time to settle the suit.

"We're hoping that Coke will now see the gravity of the situation and quickly reach an honorable settlement," said Jackson, who met with Coke officials for two days last month to discuss the suit and to encourage the company to increase its business with minority-owned firms.

Without a settlement, inaction to address the groups' concerns "will grow into a boycott," Jackson said.

Also on Wednesday, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called on Coca-Cola officials to settle the lawsuit. He did not endorse a boycott.

Eight current and former black Coke employees sued the company last year alleging that they had been denied fair pay, raises, promotions and performance reviews. The plaintiffs are seeking to add 2,000 Coke workers as class members.

The company denies those allegations, but Coke chairman and chief executive Douglas Daft reiterated Wednesday that Coke is working to resolve the suit quickly. He said he could not predict when a resolution might occur.

Several of the plaintiffs attended the meeting, but did not address shareholders.

Coke spokesman Rob Baskin said the company was disappointed by Jones's boycott initiative.

"We don't believe that that call reflects the aggressive actions taken by Doug Daft and his management team to equitably and fairly resolve the lawsuit," Baskin said.

During the 2 1/2-hour meeting, Daft allowed Jackson and Larry Jones, the former human resources manager who organized the bus trip, to address shareholders at length.

"There is great hope in this new team. You inherit the burdens of history and culture," Jackson told Daft, who was joined on the stage by president Jack Stahl and Carl Ware, Coke's vice president of global affairs; and other officers.

Jackson said the company must do more to make its board more reflective ethnically of its consumers. Coke has one black board member and no Hispanics.

Jones said his group had ridden to the meeting to call attention to their plight and to publicize their desire to share leadership with Coke executives in a new spirit of equal partnership.

"How much longer do we wait?" Jones asked. "Three more months? Five more months? Until the lawsuit is settled?"

At the end of his remarks, Jones said that new leaders at Coke had changed nothing about how the company regards blacks. "We're never going to be anything more than black employees that you see," he said.

Responded Daft: "That was a real sense of passion ... It's a passion I feel as well."

He said Coca-Cola is a diverse company operating in 200 countries where 126 languages are spoken, adding that "no one is pleased" with the progress achieved to date.

In other business, shareholders defeated proposals that would have ended bonuses, stock options, grants and severance pay; required Coke to stop using genetically altered corn in its sweetening syrup; and required the company to use refillable bottles and deposit programs in countries with per capita income less than $5,000.

Shareholders also re-elected Daft to a two-year board term and re-elected five other directors to three-year terms on the board.

In trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Coca-Cola rose 56 1/4 cents to $49.18 3/4 a share.

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