If Coke can’t be humane to workers, it has to go

By Shira Tevah

Students at the University of Chicago are calling for the removal of Coca-Cola from campus dining halls until the corporation begins respecting human rights. Investigations have shown that Coca-Cola is guilty of serious violations around the world. As students at the U of C, we have the power to force Coca-Cola to address and rectify its violations of human rights.

The Maroon’s editorial (“Keep Coke on Campus—For Now,” 5/15/07) implies that we chose this company arbitrarily, that students can choose “among the lesser of the purported evils” of soda corporations. But kicking Coke off campus is not about individuals personally not drinking an “evil” soft drink: It is about forcing one corporation with a poor human-rights record to change its ways. The Maroon cites Pepsi as another “evil” because it sourced from Burma in the 1990s. What the Maroon might not realize is that it took a national campaign to get Pepsi to change its sourcing practices. We are part of an international campaign to make Coca-Cola fix its own practices.

Students are asking for an institutional boycott of Coca-Cola for the very simple reason that we believe that this is the most efficacious way students here can get the corporation to change its practices. Personal boycotts by U of C students will have little effect on Coca-Cola, as it is really difficult to hurt the company’s bottom line through this tactic. It also does not create the kind of brand-damaging publicity that the condemnation of a well respected institution like ours does.

Institutional boycotts, on the other hand, have worked in the past—especially at this University. When the University of Chicago became the first school to remove Taco Bell from campus in 2003, dozens of other schools followed suit. In 2005, Taco Bell agreed to redress its abuses of workers’ rights. It did so in response to the increasingly poor publicity it was getting, along with the threats the removals posed to its profits.

The Maroon’s editorial challenges the Coke campaign to get Coke consumption down below sustainable levels, implicating that as the reason Taco Bell was removed from campus. But Taco Bell was removed not because students boycotted it, but because they expressed their desire to have it removed through methods like petitioning and forums—exactly what the campaign is doing here. Similarly, we have not been asking students to boycott here because we doubt the efficacy of personal boycotts and because students have made their voices heard through the thousand-plus signatures on the petition. Nevertheless, consumption of Coca-Cola is down, in fact, by more than 10 percentage points in the last year.

The administration never claimed then that the removal of Taco Bell would violate the Kalven Report, recognizing that it was fundamentally a business decision about what products students want in their dining halls. Administrators have a similar understanding in the case of Coca-Cola.

We expect that the removal of Coca-Cola from campus dining halls will have a similar effect to “booting the Bell,” or perhaps an even greater one, since more than 30 other schools have already removed the soft drink from their dining halls. There are several high-profile campaigns against Coca-Cola being run at universities across the country with large contracts with Coca-Cola. Kicking Coca-Cola off a prestigious campus like the U of C’s will spur those other campuses to do the same, forcing change at Coca-Cola.

The voice of the University of Chicago speaks loudly, especially through our prestige and capacity for well reasoned economic thought. The denunciation by the student body of our school has the potential to get Coca-Cola to respect human rights. This voice is an impressive responsibility, and we should use it change the way Coca-Cola operates.