As he stood on the loading dock, watching the big rigs unload case after case of leftover Coca-Cola for supermarkets in the black neighborhoods of Dallas, William D. Wright says he learned how to keep his mouth shut and do as he was told.
For years, he says, he stripped expired soda cans from their cardboard sheaths, stuffed them into fresh boxes with new dates stamped on the side, then piled them on store shelves as if they were new.
As long as they did not leak, dented cans were sometimes repackaged, too. It was all part of what his co-workers called the fire sale.
''I knew what we were doing was not right,'' said Mr. Wright, a Coke deliveryman for 14 years. ''But every time I brought it up, I'd hear: 'I'm the boss. You do what I say.' ''
Marching with bullhorns and spreading their message over talk radio, dozens of Coke drivers, plant workers and salespeople are accusing their bosses of inching up profits for almost a decade by pawning off expired soda cans and bottles on minority communities across North Texas.
Rather than throw the old drinks away, the workers contend, factory managers have ordered them to salvage truckloads of old, unsold drinks from stores in predominantly white areas, only to cart them to the poorest neighborhoods where shoppers are seen as just as thirsty but a lot less discriminating.
''It still looks good to the naked eye,'' said John Wayne Waleford, a Coke driver for the last 14 years. ''But the people in the community don't know what they're buying.''
A spokesman for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of North Texas, which oversees the plants and workers around Dallas and Fort Worth, called the accusations ''irresponsible and offensive.'' Not only would such a practice fly in the face of Coke's policies nationwide, the company says, but it has scoured supermarket shelves to ensure that only the freshest drinks are served.
''These allegations are totally without merit,'' said the spokesman, David Swords. ''This would not be tolerated. If it did happen, it was a select few individuals who were acting on their own.''
Still, the accusations come from more than workers, including one current and one former employee who have unrelated employment discrimination lawsuits against the company. Even some store managers in largely black neighborhoods grumble about getting the dregs of the lot.
''Whenever I called and complained, instead of taking the product away, they would just bring it to the back room and repack it,'' said Kenneth Newsome, a manager at the Sack-N-Save in Oakcliff, a predominantly black suburb of Dallas. ''Then they would use Windex cleaner to erase the expiration date on the bottles.''
Though Coca-Cola workers say that the drinks were as much as 30, 60 or sometimes even 90 days out of date, none contend that they posed much of a health risk. Soda can be old enough to grow mold without causing any acute illnesses. But soda past its expiration date goes flat and loses much of its taste. So the real issue, the workers argue, is one of basic fairness.
''I would warn the African-Americans coming into the store not to pick it up,'' said Llewellyn Hamilton, who has stacked cases of Coke for nine years. ''I'd tell them, 'There's a reason why you got it that cheap.' '' The workers said Coca-Cola products were often discounted in these stores.
The controversy comes at a bad time for Coca-Cola Enterprises, which owns the Texas operation and controls much of Coke's distribution across the country. Inspired by the $192 million racial bias settlement won by their counterparts at the company's corporate headquarters in Atlanta two years ago, black workers in the Baltimore-Washington area, Cincinnati and Chicago have begun organizing discrimination cases of their own.
''We have a clear policy against discrimination of any kind,'' said John H. Downs Jr., a spokesman for Coca-Cola Enterprises. ''If any employee has violated it, they will be held accountable and we will take appropriate and swift action.''