The case against Coca-Cola is not clear-cut

By Aaron Chaiken

Recently, some University of Chicago students have begun to attach themselves to the new movement calling for the boycott of all Coca-Cola products on university campuses. While I am confident these activists have the best of interests in their hearts, the students of this University have the right to hear both sides of this important debate. In a time of rampant corporate scandals and regular global atrocities, it becomes very easy to doubt the credibility and integrity of major corporations. However when we look at the facts, the allegations against “Killer Coke” become much more complex than University of Chicago anti-Coke activists may like to admit.

Conspicuously missing from a recent Maroon column accusing Coca-Cola of human rights violations is the word “alleged” and its various forms (“Send a Message: Take Coca-Cola Off Campus,” 4/28/06). This absence is important to note, since Coca-Cola has not been found guilty of any crimes relating to labor practices in Columbia by any court, either American or foreign. Furthermore, Coca-Cola has been dismissed from a lawsuit concerning the Columbian allegations because SINALTRAINAL, the labor union calling for the boycott of Coke products, was unable to produce evidence against the company. Also, in both a Columbian court case and in an investigation by the Columbian attorney general, no evidence was found to link company executives to the paramilitaries accused of attacking union leaders.

In addition to Coca-Cola’s legal record, an independent investigation by the Cal Safety Compliance Corporation (CSCC), an organization specializing in conducting corporate social accountability audits, found no violations at any of Coca-Cola’s Columbian plants. In their report, the CSCC maintains the following: “Workers were not afraid to speak to auditors. Auditors found no cases of improper disciplinary action against workers by plant supervisors and managers. There were no threats by management discovered nor attempts to attack or intimidate a worker for being affiliated with a union, or for being a union organizer or for being a union official.”

Aside from these investigations, it must be noted that SINATRAINAL is the only Columbian union representing Coca-Cola workers calling for this boycott. In fact, SINALTRAINBEC, another union representing Coke’s workers in Columbia, issued a statement saying that it has “not a single indication” that Coca-Cola was linked to the illegal armed groups that killed one of their union leaders, Oscar Soto Polo, nor to any other humanitarian violations. Furthermore, 31 percent of Coca-Cola bottler employees in Columbia are members of a union, compared to the national average of only 4 percent.

Finally we must take a look at SINALTRAINAL’s actual call for a boycott. The union’s national executive, Edgar Paez, writes, “To those we ask not to drink Coca-Cola, we suggest as alternatives natural drinks, fresh fruit, to regain and strengthen the food security of the people. We have never suggested that people should consume the products of multinational companies such as Pepsi. We consider that Pepsi too, practices violations of people’s rights.”

With no concrete evidence offered, formally linking Coca-Cola to illegal paramilitary groups, how can the University proceed with a boycott; and, if we are looking to follow SINALTRAINAL’s requests and proceed with a boycott, should it not then be of both Coke and Pepsi? The allegations against the Coca-Cola company are severe, and, if substantiated, should be treated with great consequence, but we cannot act until these claims can be proven.