May 18, 2007

Don't buy into the Killer Coke craze

Miranda Nelson, one of the leaders of a group trying to drive Coca-Cola off the University of Chicago campus, has a dark secret: “I really like Sprite.”

But Nelson gave up her favorite soft drink for some very rational reasons. She and her group want Coke to leave because of the company’s alleged complicity in massive human rights violations involving its workers in Colombia, where it has manufacturing plants. Rather than call on individuals to boycott Coke products (as she has done with Sprite), Nelson believes that forcing the University to end its contract with Coke is a more effective political strategy. Since Coke is an industry leader, if it changes its labor practices, then others will follow, she reasons. Nelson and those who agree with her have the support of a national organization, Students United Against Sweatshops.

Things go better with a well organized, carefully thought-out strategy. And on May 22, Student Government (SG) is sponsoring a town-hall forum with representatives from both Coca-Cola and the national “Killer Coke” campaign that should serve as the climax of the student protest movement. So, what’s wrong with this picture?

It seems nobody bothered to read the label when they invited Ray Rogers, director of Killer Coke, to speak. He’s getting his expenses and a “small” honorarium out of university funds. But a little bit of research might have convinced everyone involved that the Rogers appearance is a disservice to the cause he’s supposedly representing.

Last summer, according to research published by an influential Massachusetts political website, bluemassgroup.com, neither “Killer Coke” nor the “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke” is registered with the IRS as any sort of 501(c) nonprofit organization. Neither the IRS nor the FEC has any record of it being registered as a PAC, 527, or other political advocacy organization. In fact, the “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke” isn’t even registered as any kind of corporate or other business entity with the New York Department of State. All of which would have been easily verifiable by the SG intelligistas who asked the organization to come. (When asked about it, one SG member told me that they “didn’t want to know” the background of the organization.) The only thing anyone really can pin on Killer Coke is the name of its director, Ray Rogers.

As blogger David Kravitz posits: “If you write a check to this ‘campaign,’ where does it go?”

The only logical explanation is that it goes to Ray Rogers’ private consulting business, called “Corporate Campaign, Inc.” (CCI). As Blue Mass. Group reports, CCI is a New York for-profit business corporation that specializes in advising unions on media and fundraising strategy in their battles with private or public employers. CCI’s telephone and fax numbers are identical to those listed on Killer Coke’s site. Material on the CCI site routinely speaks in the first person plural (“We are a team of experts”), but there’s no indication that CCI consists of anyone but its “president and director,” Ray Rogers.

So is the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke anything more than a bank account owned by Ray Rogers? Rogers told Blue Mass. Group that the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke is just a “project” of CCI, so it appears that the answer to that question is yes.

A few minutes of simple online due diligence could have saved the anti-Coke campaign and SG the embarrassment of being duped by what seems at best to be a marginal organization. But Miranda Nelson and Andrew Stergachis, the Campus Services Committee chair, admitted they had no knowledge of all this. Nelson says she’s “just happy if it educates students,” and I agree, if for different reasons. Stergachis says Student Government simply “wanted someone to take the other side, and the national Killer Coke campaign was the most vocal.” Great. That’s like buying a can of soda because an ad tells you it’s “the real thing.”