With Coca-Cola, capitalism’s injustices are abundantly clear

By Daniel Benjamin

Breathless praise of free-market capitalism, never far from the Maroon’s opinion pages, returns in the form of Ryan McCarl’s pro-corporate screed (“Want My Coke? Then Pry It from My Cold, Dead Fingers,” 5/8/07). McCarl’s condescending article is a parade of factual errors and conceptual confusion.

McCarl’s argument rests on his views about the conditions of choice under free-market capitalism, both worldwide and at the University. Rather shockingly, McCarl says that capitalism provides a “bewildering array of choices” to not only consumers and entrepreneurs but to workers as well.

Perhaps he is referring to workers at Colombian Coca-Cola bottling plants who chose to start organizing a union to improve factory wages and working conditions. In one instance, a worker was shot and killed inside the factory after the bottlers unlocked the factory doors to paramilitary groups. The bottlers, threatening more retaliation, then gave members of the union resignation letters on Coca-Cola letterhead, which the workers “chose” to sign. This is not the only case of violence. Seven other Colombian labor organizers working in Coke plants have been murdered, and others have faced various forms of violent intimidation. If Coca-Cola offers any choice to its Colombian workers, it’s choice at the barrel of a gun.

Perhaps McCarl refers to the “choice” provided to rural farmers in India. But they did not choose to have Coca-Cola bottling plants enter their communities, deplete the water table, pollute the area, and ruin the farmers’ livelihoods. In fact, they continually choose to ask Coke factories to leave their states.

McCarl’s claims that the campus campaign selected Coca-Cola “arbitrarily” and that Coke’s human-rights abuses are “alleged” are in every way specious. Our actions respond to the Colombian workers’ call for an international boycott, a call answered by over 30 colleges, including DePaul, NYU, and Swarthmore. While Coca-Cola is not the only corporation with deplorable human rights practices, it is one of the worst and is the leader in the soft drinks industry. Change in Coke’s behavior makes change by Pepsi and others far likelier.

I have not yet addressed McCarl’s most central argument: Removing Coca-Cola from the dining halls would be “undemocratic” and “choice-curtailing.” He should know that there is no real market choice in the dining halls, where a limited number of selections are imposed on us by forces over which we have fleeting control. In true market economies, multiple sellers compete for consumers’ dollars. But Aramark already has our dollars in the form of yearly meal plans, and it decides what is sold at dining halls and dictates the apparent choice between Coke and Pepsi. But it isn’t a choice at all. In all-you-can-eat dining halls, every time I swipe my card I pay for McCarl’s Coca-Cola because it is included in my meal plan. Even though we don’t want to be involved with human-rights abuses, we have our choice “curtailed” on these plans, as we are forced to financially support Coke.

Kicking Coca-Cola off campus would only be an exercise of choice: We would be using our power as consumers to influence the conduct of Coca-Cola. Eliminating Coke from the dining halls would stop Aramark from forcing us to support Coke’s benighted labor practices. It would leave those students indifferent about human rights free to purchase Coke elsewhere, at local establishments and at student-run coffee shops. It would protect the choices of students who decline to support human-rights violators with their purchases.

To praise the privileges, rights, and boons provided by the free-market system and to ignore that voiceless victims suffer at our expense is rather Pollyannaish. McCarl might have free-market capitalism alone to thank for the privilege that allows him to attend the University of Chicago, but most of us are here because of checks on free-market capitalism that have allowed our families to survive. It was the right to unionize and fight for higher wages that led our parents and grandparents to earn enough to eventually send us to college. It was progressive anti-trust legislation that allowed not just the rich to enjoy capitalism’s benefits. The real “hypocrites” are those who ignore the horrors unchecked capitalism wrought before the reforms which actually made our comfortable lives possible.

While surely no one on the anti-Coke campaign claims to stand outside the benefits of capitalism, we try to be aware, and to make others aware, that there are many injustices in the free-market system. And so, through our purchasing power, we try to help workers worldwide to exercise the freedoms that McCarl values so highly.