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 anti-corporate 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 of May.
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 anti-corporate 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.
Michael Blandingis a freelance writer living in Boston.
Reprinted with permission from The Nation