Ever since its "I'd like to teach the world to sing" commercials from
the 1970s, Coca-Cola has billed itself as the world's beverage, uniting all colors
and cultures within its red-and-white swoosh. Behind that image, however, a growing
student movement is taking the company to task for its less than harmonious record
of human rights around the globe.
Chief among the accusations is the company's alleged complicity in the murder
of union members by paramilitaries at bottling plants in Colombia. So far, six
colleges and universities in the United States--including Carleton, Oberlin
and Bard--have responded to a call by the Colombian beverages union for a boycott,
either by canceling contracts or banning vending machines. Campaigns are active
at about ninety more, making this the largest anticorporate campaign since the
one against Nike. "Coke sells an image," says Camilo Romero, a national
organizer with United Students Against Sweatshops. "As with any campaign
like this, it is hurting its image that will hurt their bottom line."
Romero says that in addition to boycotts, students will soon be conducting sit-ins
similar to those that helped publicize sweatshop abuses by Nike and other companies
in the late 1990s. That campaign had mixed results; Nike eventually disclosed
the locations of its factories and raised wages slightly but failed to follow
through on other promises to monitor abuses. More recently, a student campaign
helped contribute to a victory against Taco Bell by migrant workers fighting to
raise the priced paid to them for tomatoes they picked.
Fresh from that success, Romero appeared last month before a packed auditorium
at Smith College, where the administration has so far responded favorably to
student calls for a Coke boycott. With him was Javier Correa, president of the
Colombian union SINALTRAINAL, who spoke of a decade of violence that has resulted
in the deaths of eight workers. As an example, he told the story of Isidro Gil,
who was shot dead in 1996 at the bottling plant; a week later, paramilitaries
entered the plant and forced workers to sign letters of resignation from the
union at gunpoint. Coca-Cola directly controls the bottling facilities through
their contracts, said Correa, who says he has himself escaped three assassination
attempts. "It's clear they have the power to stop what's happening."
In an e-mail, Coke's issues director, Lori George Billingsley, denies that
the companies or its bottlers have been involved in the violence. "We are
disappointed in the student boycotts because the campaigns are based on inaccuracies
regarding the situation on the ground, " she writes. The company recently
announced that it will be conducting audits of worker conditions around the
world, but it has stopped short of agreeing to demands for an independent investigation
into the murders.
"They are trying to deal with these ugly allegations as a public relations
matter rather then the serious matter they are," says Ray Rogers, head
of the Killer Coke Campaign, which is helping to direct the student boycotts.
The campaign has rattled Coke, which has dispatched representatives from its
headquarters in Atlanta and from its subsidiary in Colombia to campuses to argue
its case. At New York University, a heated debate between Billingsley and students
preceded a vote by the University Committee on Student Life in December approving
the boycott. This month, however, that decision was overturned by the university
senate, which opted instead for a letter to the company urging it to agree to
an investigation, requesting a response by April 20. The softer measure was
denounced by the college newspaper as thwarting the will of the students, some
of whom have vowed more direct action.
Despite NYU's high profile, two large universities with long-term Coke contracts
may hold more influence over whether the campaign succeeds. The 51,000-student
Rutgers University in New Jersey recently held a public hearing at which student
after student stood up to demand cancellation of the university's ten-year,
$10 million exclusive beverages contact. A committee of faculty, staff, and
students will make the final decision before the contract expires at the end
At the 39,000-student University of Michigan, the Coke case will be the first
test of a new university policy to hold its vendors accountable to a code of
conduct that includes human rights. As with the case at NYU, the university's
student assembly passed a resolution supporting the campaign's allegations.
The final decision on whether to cancel the university's contracts--collectively
worth about $1.3 million a year--now falls to a student-faculty dispute review
board, which plans a ruling before the first contract expires in June.
Significantly, the campaign at Michigan has expanded the charges beyond the
allegations in Colombia to include human rights abuses in India, where the company
has been accused of causing drought and pollution that has hurt farmers. "What's
happening in both Colombia and India are proximate causes," says junior
Ryan Bates. "There is an underlying flaw in the global trade structure
that puts values of for-profit corporations over values of people and communities.
" Reflecting a trend in the anticorporate globalization movement to draw
connections between disparate issues, other groups adding their voices to the
campaign are accusing Coke of child labor in El Salvador, failure to provide
healthcare for workers with HIV/AIDS in Africa and even childhood obesity in
the United States.
Meanwhile, the university campaign continues to grow internationally, with
three colleges in Ireland, one in Italy, and one in Canada joining the boycott.
Rogers says that colleges are now contacting him to say they've started campaigns.
His next target: vending machines in high schools. "Coke would have to
hire an army of people to respond to all of the fires that we've got going,
" he says.