CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Former contractors blocked delivery trucks from entering and leaving Coca-Cola Co. plants throughout Venezuela Monday to protest unpaid severance benefits _ the latest challenge to U.S.-owned companies by allies of President Hugo Chavez.

Pro-Chavez congresswoman Iris Varela said protesters were demonstrating outside bottling plants nationwide. She pledged the protests would continue until the company settles pending debts with former workers.

In a statement, Coca-Cola's local subsidiary confirmed former contractors had ``illegally'' blocked access to three bottling and several distribution plants in Venezuela. Protesters also picketed outside the company's administrative offices in Caracas, the statement said.

Coca-Cola said local courts had ruled against the demands raised by former workers. The company said Monday's protests were ``not only affecting the company but also the jobs of 7,000 Venezuelan citizens.''

Protesters wearing T-shirts reading ``Coca-Cola: Don't Drink It!'' lounged in hammocks strung up along fences surrounding the plant while others held up banners reading: ``Respect our labor rights!''

``We are staying here until there's a solution, we have been pushed around for too long,'' said Luis Hernandez, who joined more than a dozen other former workers as they parked a cargo truck in front of a gated entrance to Coca-Cola offices in Caracas' industrial Los Cortijos zone.

In an interview broadcast on state television, Varela warned Coca-Cola representatives that lawmakers could move to expropriate the company's bottling plants if workers' demands are not met.

``The company should be expropriated'' if the outstanding debts are not paid to former employees and a new company could produce ``Venezuelan soft drinks instead,'' Varela said.

Rosa Natera, an attorney representing former employees, said Coca-Cola Co. owes roughly more than 10,000 former workers an estimated 6 billion bolivars, or $2.8 million, in severance payments dating back to 1999.

Coca-Cola Co. owns four bottling units and 34 distribution centers in Venezuela.

Chavez supporters often accuse U.S. companies of exploiting Venezuelan workers and have called for boycotts in the past against American firms, including Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Nike.

Chavez's left-leaning administration has cracked down on U.S. companies that have fallen behind on tax payments, but the socialist president says foreign companies from all over the world are welcome to invest in Venezuela.

Last year, Venezuela's tax agency ordered the temporary closing of all 80 McDonald's restaurants in the country as a penalty for failing to follow tax rules. U.S.-based oil firms have also been closed or fined for the same reasons.