Send a message: Take Coca-Cola off campus

By Miranda Nelson

In Wilmington, Delaware on April 19, Coca-Cola held its annual shareholder’s meeting. And this year, just like the last, the meeting was surrounded by protesters. Coca-Cola has come under increasing fire for its human rights abuses, with recent articles detailing the situation in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Nation, and in Business Today, a publication sponsored by Coca-Cola and inserted into last week’s Maroon. As a member of a coalition of student groups wishing to remove Coca-Cola from campus until the company rectifies the abuses, I thought it was worthwhile to discuss these abuses and the necessity of remedying them.

Coca-Cola has been accused of violating human rights in Colombia, India, Turkey, Indonesia and Guatemala. The situation in Colombia is most prominent because SINALTRAINAL—the Colombian Food and Beverage Workers Union—called for an international boycott of Coca-Cola in July 2003 for the company’s collaboration with paramilitary groups to torture, intimidate, kidnap, and murder union organizers. Since 1989, eight union organizers in Coca-Cola’s bottling plants have been murdered by death squads. This past winter, Luis Cardona, an organizer with SINALTRAINAL, came to our university to give his eyewitness account of the murder of his friend and fellow union organizer. He recalled the brutality of the murder and also detailed the complicity and cooperation between the managers of the Coke bottling plant and the death squad which committed the murder—one that happened inside the gates of the factory where they both worked. Cardona is currently living in Chicago under asylum.

The Coca-Cola company tends to offer up two defenses in response to the situation in Colombia. It insists that Colombia is a violent country and that complicity between union organizers and factory owners has not been proven. (Cases against them were, in fact, dismissed in Colombian courts—but only five paramilitaries have ever been convicted in Colombian courts.) However, it’s not the case that there is no degree of documentation. There is the eyewitness testimony of workers like Cardona. There are also investigations undertaken by Hiram Monserrate, a New York City Council member, and Lesley Gill, an anthropologist at American University. More recently, universities have called for their own independent investigation into the murders and the abuses. Coca-Cola has been delaying and obstructing any attempt at an independent investigation, repeatedly ignoring deadlines set by a commission of university administrators and students. And although Coca-Cola has recently requested that the International Labor Organization (ILO) conduct an investigation, the process will not be objective or independent: Ed Potter, the director of Global Labor Relations for Coca-Cola, featured in the Business Today article, has held the influential position of U.S. Employer Representative in the ILO for 15 years.

Coca-Cola’s other defense is that it has no control over their Colombian bottlers. However, Coca-Cola holds ownership shares in its subsidiaries and controls highly detailed bottling agreements. One has to believe it has some ability to control what happens in the bottling plants and respond to SINALTRAINAL’s demands—namely, to acknowledge the facts of collaboration with the paramilitaries, denounce this association, provide reparations for the victims and their family members, and develop a comprehensive global human rights policy to prevent such grievous violations from happening again.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola is accused of other crimes in India, such as draining the wells of communities in which its factories are located and polluting the nearby rivers that were the alternative water source. The Polaris Institute, which studies water and water supplies, found that Coca-Cola has parched the communities in which it is located. A documentary screened on campus fall quarter detailed the struggle in Plachimada, Kerala. Women there complained of an inability to cook rice well or water their crops. Despite the jobs the company provided, the town of Plachimada voted to shut the factory down. Similar struggles are currently taking place in Mehdiganj in central India and in Rajasthan. In India, the campaign demands closure of those plants being protested, cleanup of others, and compensation for the affected villagers.

Finally, Coca-Cola has been implicated in violations of labor rights in Turkey, Indonesia, and Guatemala. In Turkey, when workers tried to organize a union at a bottling plant, they were illegally fired. They protested for 100 days until they were starved into a settlement that did not include rehiring. Workers attempting to organize at a Coca-Cola can factory in Indonesia have been beaten, threatened, and otherwise intimidated. The leader of the Coca-Cola worker’s union in Guatemala and his family have received death threats. What is particularly upsetting about these last two incidents is that they took place in the last year—after Coca-Cola hired Ed Potter and claimed to get serious about its human rights situation. And yet, nothing has been done for these workers.

Over 20 universities around the world, including Rutgers and NYU, have removed Coca-Cola products from their campuses. Dozens of unions have banned the soft drink from their facilities. The University of Chicago is, of course, not the biggest buyer of Coca-Cola products, but if we institutionally removed Coca-Cola from our dining halls until the company corrects its human rights violations, we would send the signal that we are one more community that objects to the company’s current practices. And then we are one step closer to forcing Coca-Cola to stop its violations of human rights across the world.