(CN) - Coca-Cola Co. uses violence - including home invasion, rape, murder and attempted murder - to prevent workers from joining unions at its Guatemalan plants, eight former Coke workers claim in New York County Court. Lead plaintiff Jose Armando Palacios says he was repeatedly subjected to attempts on his life after he joined the union at a Coca-Cola processing plaint in Guatemala City in 2004.
Thugs hired by Coke invaded his home, held his wife and family at gunpoint and threatened to shoot them, Palacios says. He describes himself as a longtime advocate of collective bargaining, and says the threats and attempts on his life came after he joined the union at Coca-Cola's INCASA instant coffee and Coca-Cola processing plant in the nation's capital.
The 49-page lawsuit echoes complaints that led to a worldwide boycott of Coke products in the 1970s and 1980s, during which the company was accused of gross human rights violations at its plants in Central America. One well-regarded journalist reported that a Coca-Cola spokesman in Guatemala bragged about the company's death squads' ability to control unions.
The recent complaint cites U.S. State Department reports that attacks on trade unionists are commonplace and murders of labor leaders generally are not well investigated and go unprosecuted.
The State Department noted a significant increase in the number of killings of trade union activists and their family members, the complaint states.
Despite these reports, "Coke asserts that it is firmly in charge of human rights compliance within the entire Coke empire, including Coke's bottling plants," the plaintiffs say.
"However, when it comes to human rights and labor rights problems arising in its bottling plants, Coke has historically acted to intentionally deceive its shareholders, potential investors, and the consuming public."
The plaintiffs say that "when a concrete violation occurs in a bottling plant, Coke's initial position is that it does not have any responsibility at all for any violations of law or of Coke's human and labor rights policies.
"This contradiction is conclusive evidence of deception and fraud," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs say they filed the complaint in New York due to their lack of access "to an independent and functioning legal system in Guatemala," a country "with a corrupt judiciary which has been undermined by the intimidation and murder of witnesses, prosecutors, lawyers and judges."
They demand punitive damages for wrongful death, assault, battery, trespass, false imprisonment, unjust enrichment, negligence and other charges. They are represented by Emily Bass of Manhattan and Terrence Collingsworth of Conrad & Scherer in Washington, D.C.
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