Buzz over Coca-Cola spills far

By Matt Won

A good deal of media coverage has emerged from the recommendation by Macalester’s Social Responsibility Committee to ban Coca-Cola from campus, though it seems to have obscured one simple fact: the President has yet to sign an actual ban.

With stories appearing on the front page of the Star Tribune, local television and internet weblogs, the media has substantially amplified the voice of the SRC. The committee voted March 1 to recommend that Macalester join more than 20 other universities in banning Coca-Cola: part of a worldwide campaign to pressure the company into investigating and reforming its labor and environmental practices in countries from Colombia to Turkey to India.

Despite Macalester’s small size compared to that of many institutions with bans, such as NYU and the University of Michigan, the SRC’s vote has been heard around the world. After TV news coverage on KSTP and a front-page article in the Star-Tribune, the Associated Press wrote a story that was run by several regional papers, MSNBC.com, WCCO, as well as WSB-TV, based along with Coca-Cola in Atlanta.

The University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Daily published a staff editorial on Apr. 3, titled “U must take a hint from Macalester,” urging Minnesota to follow the SRC’s lead. This Wednesday, another staff editorial gave kudos to Macalester for “raising questions about the ethical practices of Coca-Cola and whether it is worth supporting such a corporation.”

The Star-Tribune published a letter to the editor from Professor Marjorie Merryman, the SRC chair, answering conservative columnist Katherine Kersten. Kersten wrote on Apr. 2 that “Facts can spoil the romance and allure of protest,” and that the SRC’s vote wasn’t “so much about improving lives as about striking self-righteous poses, parading in front of cameras and playing the rebel,” concluding that “the soda pop has gone to their heads.”

Merryman’s response both defended student activism and articulated the SRC’s rationale, which was based on previous contact with Coca-Cola and the company’s failure to facilitate an independent investigation into allegations in Colombia and India.

It is unclear what effect this media pressure may have on the President’s decision. “The media coverage puts different kinds of pressures on the administration,” Merryman said, that could delay a response.

According to the minutes of SRC’s last meeting on March 29 this media attention was entirely unintended, as the vote was to be kept confidential until the recommendation was submitted to the President- an act that ocurred on March 31. “The SRC as a body didn’t want to see any media coverage until President Rosenberg had issued his letter,” SRC member Professor Peter Rachleff said.

While anyone can attend the meetings, Merryman said that the SRC is working to formalize methods of notification to make the meetings transparent, and will publish them when they are voted on, likely at the next meeting. “Posting stuff on a website is kind of hiding things in plain sight, not that that was anyone’s intent,” Rachleff said. “One needs to know what to look for in order to find. Some of us on the committee were eager to see a more active kind of notification.”

With the motion and the SRC’s rationale forwarded to the President, the SRC’s role on the issue is now fulfilled. Prior to the meeting, Merryman submitted those materials along with a draft of a letter that the President might send to the Coca-Cola Company.

All eyes are on Rosenberg, as unless the President signs off on the ban, Coca-Cola products will continue to flow from Caf’¨ Mac fountains, and be available in vending machines. “The ball is in his court,” Rachleff said.

The SRC has modeled much of its decision on the interaction between the Coca-Cola Company and the University of Michigan. The company’s Jan. 19 statement to Michigan’s Board of Regents promised a comprehensive audit of Coca-Cola’s labor relations and environmental practices, as well as an impartial third party investigation into its conduct in Colombia by the first quarter of 2006.

Just days ago, the United Nations International Labor Organization accepted a joint offer by Coca-Cola and the International Union of Food Workers to investigate allegations regarding the company’s labor practices in Colombia.

Details are still emerging on the investigation, and Michigan is mulling its legitimacy, as Ed Potter, Coca-Cola’s director of global relations, has been the American employer representative to the ILO for years. Many Coke activists have dismissed this investigation as irredeemably marred by conflict of interest.

Without ruling on the final legitimacy of the ILO investigation, the Committee agreed that the impending inquiry was to have no effect on the SRC’s recommendation to the President. It remains to be seen whether this investigation, should it exonerate Coca-Cola, could bring the company’s products back on campus in the event of a ban.

Wider questions of the company’s worldwide conduct, however, seem to make the ILO’s Colombia-only investigation unlikely to change the SRC’s recommendation.

“It appears to me that just as we might get our hands around one location, like Colombia, we discover there are problems with Coca-Cola’s behavior in India or Turkey or Indonesia or who knows where else,” Rachleff said. “So they may solve their problems in Colombia but we may feel they are bad citizens in other places so we may still not want to do business with them.”

Presently, Macalester seems to have the spotlight, and many await a decision by the President that could leave us a Coke-dry campus. “It would be unfortunate if the president took so long that school was out by the time he issued whatever his response is,” Rachleff said.

Correction added: 4/7/06

The original article contained a quote from Peter Rachleff implying that President Rosenberg had been given an official recommendation from the SRC five weeks ago. Though the committee voted on the recommendation March 1, the official recommendation did not reach Rosenberg’s desk until March 31 (also added to the article).