Ed Potter has spent nearly half his life representing U.S. businesses at the annual International Labor Organization (ILO) Conference. Earlier this year, Coke’s director of global workplace rights attended his 33rd and final ILO Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, more than any other American business representative.

Potter’s unparalleled leadership at the conference – and the relationships he has brokered and nurtured along the way – have had a positive impact on the global landscape of international labor standards and positioned Coca-Cola at the forefront of the human and workplace rights conversation.

Formed in 1919, the ILO is the oldest United Nations (UN) agency. As the only tripartite UN agency, all ILO actions require engagement by government, employer and worker representatives. Its primary goal is to promote opportunities for and men women to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.

“Democracy is a messy process,” Potter said during a recent interview, “and the ILO is the personification of democracy.”

The ILO Conference is the supreme legislature of the ILO. It negotiates and adopts international labor standards on topics such as freedom of association, labor inspection, child labor and nondiscrimination, which are then ratified and implemented by member states and become law. Potter calls the month-long gathering the “most complex collective bargaining table” he’s ever seen.

“I’ve been really fortunate to impact the direction of ILO standards and how they are applied,” he added. “My hope is that the implementation of labor and workplace rights standards, in some small way, is better because of my role at the ILO.”

Potter’s extensive background in international labor, workplace rights and employment law has enabled him to hold several leadership roles at the ILO Conference. In 1997, he became head of the U.S. Employer Delegation and, in 1998, was the employer spokesman that negotiated the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which serves as one of the bases for the UN Global Compact and The Coca-Cola Company’s Human Rights Policies.

“What Ed brought to the ILO, above all else, was an unchanging and unalterable commitment to the ILO’s values of social justice and fundamental rights,” said Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General. “That commitment has been all the more powerful for being delivered in understated rather than rhetorical style, calmly rather than in anger, and on all occasions rather than merely when convenient. For all these reasons, all those who have known and worked with Ed at the ILO can and will look back on his 33 years of contribution to our Organization and conclude, to paraphrase the bard, that “this was a man… of principle.” Read Ryder’s full tribute to Potter.

From 2004 to 2011, Potter was the employer spokesman on the ILO’s Committee on Application of Standards that holds countries accountable for their international legal obligations resulting from ratification of ILO treaties. In 2014, he was the employer spokesman that negotiated the ILO Forced Labor Protocol and Recommendation that brings a 1930 forced labor standard into the 21st Century by addressing human trafficking that results in forced labor and implementation gaps found in the 1930 treaty.

“Ed is a contributor,” said Brent Wilton, secretary-general for the International Organization of Employers (IOE), a group Potter represented on hundreds of cases before the Committee of Application of Standards. “He is a negotiator, a strategist, a legal drafter and a person that looked to take forward the interests of the employers while at the same time being steadfast in his support for the values of tripartism and dialogue. Thirty-three consecutive years of participating in the work of the ILO is not a record we will see many repeat.”

Potter has witnessed -- and helped steward -- a lot of change over his three-plus decades of involvement with the ILO. His first conference in 1982 was characterized by the verbal missiles of the Cold War and committees addressing apartheid and the participation of communist countries in the ILO.

“It was a slower, more opaque time,” he recalled. “No Internet, no laptop computers, connectivity via hard-wired phones and incredibly slow faxes. A lot has changed.”

Potter practiced law for 26 years before joining Coca-Cola in 2005. During his tenure at Coke, he has led the development of the company’s first Human Rights Statement and Workplace Rights Policy, initiated an annual human rights conference and launched a global Workplace Rights development program that brings leading experts from business, government and civil society to Atlanta. In addition, under his leadership, more than 16,000 workplace assessments have been conducted in our Company, system and supply chain. About 1,300,000 workers have benefited by improved practices driven by our implementation of our Workplace Rights Policy and Supplier Guiding Principles.

“Over the past nine years, Ed has played a key leadership role in the development and implementation of our human rights policies, as well as our due diligence and remediation processes to ensure that we are respecting human rights across our business and supply chain," said Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent. "He has led collaborative efforts with a variety of stakeholders across the Golden Triangle of business, government and civil society, and his many leadership roles at the ILO have been well aligned with the values and engagement efforts of our company.” 

According to Ceree Eberly, The Coca-Cola Company’s Chief People Officer, the global Coca-Cola system and supply chain has benefitted from Potter’s expertise and counsel.

“Ed has applied a consistent formula in every challenging situation, including his focus on human rights, insightful analyses, thoughtful communication skills, a humble heart and an overarching desire to do the right thing,” she says. “His legacy of collaboration on numerous tripartite labor standards, declarations, human rights policies, stakeholder relationships, and mentorship of many will have a lasting impact and continue to improve the lives of workers everywhere.” 

In 2005, Coca-Cola established a global working relationship with The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF), which represents the largest number of unionized system employees.  

"The Coca-Cola Company and the IUF had begun an unprecedented process of engagement to allow the IUF to raise and resolve our human rights concerns, notably rights at work, with the company in the context of its own workforce, as well as those working throughout the Coca-Cola system,” explains Ron Oswald, general secretary, IUF. “Ed led the company's team in a principled and pioneering way as we advanced this process. Since then, his leadership of the corporate team has always been built on a candid and a good faith approach... he has always said what he meant and meant what he said. While we may not have always shared common views or positions over these past nine years, we have always had the utmost respect for the way Ed has brought a level of personal integrity to this process.”

Last month, the U.S. Council for International Business honored Potter’s 33 years of ILO service with a special dinner in Geneva.

“It’s a humbling validation of my work with the ILO,” Potter says. “I’ve left the conference every year feeling proud of the fact that, in some small way, we helped improve the lives of workers somewhere in the world.”

Potter, who will retire from The Coca-Cola Company on June 1, 2015, feels the same way about the work of his global workplace rights team. He says he sees the conclusion of his career as the “end of the beginning.”

Respect for human rights within the global business community is maturing, he explains, and The Coca-Cola Company is leading the way.

“Coca-Cola has been a path maker,” he says. “We are now sought after as a company to learn from, based on our tools and framework for respecting human rights. Everyone at Coca-Cola can feel very good every day because we’re solving problems and improving workplace conditions across the business system and our supply chain.”