Farewell to Coke?

By Matt Won

[img_assistfid=248thumb=1alt=Coke Graphic]
A two-year long struggle for campus activists has perhaps come to an end. Macalesterƒ?TMs Social Responsibility Committee (SRC) recommended Mar. 1 to ban Coca-Cola products from campus. The recommendation, by a unanimous vote of the committee members, will go to President Brian Rosenberg, who many expect to sign off on the ban.

Surprised? So is almost everyone else on campus, including the Committeeƒ?TMs members, who werenƒ?TMt aware before the meeting that a vote would occur.

ƒ?oeI do think that everyone was a little surprised at how quickly the vote came around, and thought that perhaps it might have just kind of rolled a little quickly,ƒ?? said Dean of Students Laurie Hamre, who is also a non-voting SRC members. ƒ?oeItƒ?TMs not usually how the committee would work.

ƒ?oeI believe that the committee wouldƒ?TMve probably taken this action eventually anyway,ƒ?? said professor Marjorie Merryman, the SRC chair who called the vote. ƒ?oeWe didnƒ?TMt feel like we were doing this without there ever having been a discussion of it.ƒ??

Merryman is currently drafting a letter to Coca-Cola for President Brian Rosenbergƒ?TMs possible signature. The schoolƒ?TMs decision will go public when that process is finished, likely within the next several weeks. At this point, Coca-Cola products will disappear from campus vending machines, the Highlander store, the Grille and CafAc Mac. Beverage contracts would remain unchanged, as the college currently has a contract with a third-party vendor, not with Coke.

This move comes amid a wave of announcements from schools like New York University and the University of Michigan that have dumped Coca-Cola pending an independent investigation of the companyƒ?TMs labor practices in Colombia. The SRC, which advises the administration on ethical institutional behavior, had previously called for an independent investigation, but received no response from Coke. According to Merryman, this lack of response prompted the SRC vote last week.

Though discussion of the topic was on the SRCƒ?TMs agenda, a vote wasnƒ?TMt scheduled, and members of the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) showed up unexpectedly at the meeting to make their case, presenting new evidence, including previously unheard allegations of anti-labor conduct by Coca-Cola in Turkey and Indonesia on top of previous alleged abuses in India and Colombia. SLAC was the only campus group outside of the SRC that was heard on the matter.

Committee members had no additional time to research the claims.

ƒ?oeWe set the agenda ahead of time because people have to do homework, so the walk-ins [are not] that helpful for the committee because theyƒ?TMre not as up-to-date as they need to be,ƒ?? Hamre said.

Despite the lack of a rebuttal to SLAC, Merryman said the SRCƒ?TMs vote was not based on SLACƒ?TMs input, but rather the SRCƒ?TMs previous action and the lack of Cokeƒ?TMs response.

ƒ?oeWeƒ?TMre not accusing Coca-Cola of anything,ƒ?? Merryman said.

The SRC advertises through the Bulletin and Today for community members to put items on the agenda. While allowing any member of the community to put forth topics on its agenda, the SRC does not publicly announce its meetings.

The SRC this year has resolved to be more transparent, but changes have yet to be implemented, and some on campus are concerned that, especially on this hot topic, little room was allowed for public debate.

“Iƒ?TMd like to see [the SRC] have an open discussion of this,ƒ?? said math professor Danny Kaplan, a former SRC chair whose term on the committee expired. ƒ?oeItƒ?TMd be much more effective to convince people who are consumers of Coke that they shouldnƒ?TMt buy Coke, and the way to do that is not by voting in secret but by having an open discussion of it.”

According to Merryman, the SRCƒ?TMs recommendation was largely based on Coca-Colaƒ?TMs Jan. 19 statement to the University of Michigan, which made reference to a proposed independent investigation of the allegations in Colombia as well as an audit of its environmental practices in India. The successful completion of these audits should prompt the return of Coca-Cola products to campus, according to the recommendation.

A two year struggle
This is just the latest development in the long campus battle among groups like SLAC to banish the bubbly brown beverage and its brethren from campus. The exchange reached its most fevered pitch when Coca-Cola vending machines on campus were vandalized in Spring ƒ?TM04. Colombian labor leader Luis Cardona visited campus in Fall ƒ?TM04 to discuss the allegations. Macalester let its exclusive contract with local bottler Midwest Coca-Cola expire last August in favor of an arrangement with a third-party vendor supplying drinks from several companies, including Coca-Cola.

For many Macalester students, the cons of a Coke ban are as much practical as political. ƒ?oeI donƒ?TMt think that we need people or organizations telling us how we should think about corporate policy,ƒ?? Victoria Harris ƒ?TM09 said. ƒ?oeAnd I hate Pepsi. I want to be able to drink soda with my dinner, and if they ban Coke, I canƒ?TMt do that.ƒ??

A Macalester ban would become part of a wave of colleges and universities banning Coke to pressure the $23 billion Atlanta-based company to investigate its labor and environmental practices internationally. While colleges represent a tiny fraction of the companyƒ?TMs domestic incomeƒ?”85 percent of its income is generated abroadƒ?”this enduring American iconƒ?TMs image may be its most valuable commodity.

ƒ?oeThe monetary impact may not be that great, but the fact that this is being brought to the public will have an impact eventually,ƒ?? SLAC member Hadley Pope ƒ?TM09 said.

Coke works on its image>/b>
The allegations may be having an effect. While Coke has been a lightning rod for criticism as the worldƒ?TMs top soft drink seller, with 48 percent market share, PepsiCo passed Coca-Cola in market value last December. To regain its dominance, Coca-Cola is launching a worldwide ad campaign called ƒ?oewelcome to the Coke side of lifeƒ?? to salvage its playful, feel-good brand image.

Despite the fact that Coca-Cola, even before a complete ban, has no contract with Macalester , the Coca-Cola Company is running two consecutive ads in this and 23 other publications to address the allegations., spending around $1,400 on The Mac Weekly alone. The ads ran on campuses where students had questioned the companyƒ?TMs practices, said Kerry Kerr Redovian, a spokesperson for the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta.

The issue has, for some, become a symbol of Macalesterƒ?TMs social consciousness and, for others, an example of the student bodyƒ?TMs cause du jour activism and polarized political dialogue. ƒ?oeAs usual, the political dialogue is too emotionally charged and disconcertingly devoid of actual facts,ƒ?? Phil Higgs ƒ?TM07 said.

Higgs, as a supporter of the company based in his hometown, has been in the minority as a public advocate of Coca-Cola. ƒ?oeI donƒ?TMt think that thatƒ?TMs the true spirit of democracy,ƒ?? he said. ƒ?oeIƒ?TMve found that most of the people that Iƒ?TMve dealt with on the Coke issue here at Macalester to be so liberal that they were conservative.ƒ??

Those involved, however, have shown a passion for the cause that has helped sustain the issue over the past two years. Eight union leaders at Coca-Cola plants have been killed since 1989, and the accusations range from the local bottler collaborating to have them killed to the company merely neglecting its workersƒ?TM safety.

Some remain skeptical of the allegations. ƒ?oeThe evidence [given by SLAC] was so slight, and often so silly, that it was hard to comply with their demand,ƒ?? Kaplan said. ƒ?oeThere has been essentially a civil war and it’s been carried out by right-wing paramilitaries and one of the targets has been
labor leaders.ƒ??

Allegations in India regard the depletion and contamination of water supplies surrounding bottling plants. The manufacture of Coca-Cola also creates a sludge byproduct that the company distributes to farmers for use as fertilizer, but some tests have shown that they contain high levels of lead and cadmium.

SLAC members cited further allegations of anti-labor activity in Turkey and Indonesia. ƒ?oeWhere thereƒ?TMs smoke thereƒ?TMs fire. Because of all these little [incidents] itƒ?TMs clear they donƒ?TMt have good ethical standards,ƒ?? Pope said.

The IUF, an international union, recommended on Mar. 2 that the UNƒ?TMs International Labor Organization investigate Coca-Colaƒ?TMs conduct in Colombia, an independent investigation that Coca-Cola has announced it will support.

However, many find this settlement insufficient as it will not cover any of the accusations of Coca-Cola in other countries.

Some doubt that any investigation would ever be satisfactory to the anti-Coke activists. ƒ?oeWe asked [the SLAC members] ƒ?What kind of investigation can you see that would vindicate Coke? Can you imagine such a thing.ƒ?TM They said ƒ?No, we canƒ?TMt imagine,ƒ?TMƒ?? Kaplan said.

ƒ?oeSLAC feels that when the workers and individuals asking for our help, when their problems are solved, we can sell Coke,ƒ?? Pope said.

Critics also note that Pepsi faces virtually identical allegations in India, and has its own labor problems in places like Guatemala and the UK. The IUF has been critical of both Pepsi and Coca-Cola, noting that, paradoxically, less has been heard about anti-labor activity by Pepsi because that company has been more effective at thwarting unions.

SLAC said that promoting Pepsi was not the goal.
ƒ?oeWeƒ?TMre not encouraging the college to sign with Pepsi,ƒ?? Pope said. ƒ?oeAnti-Coke is an international movement to say that corporations canƒ?TMt do this to workers. We are being their voice. Because thereƒ?TMs this campaign it makes a greater statement.ƒ??
The bottom line for many students, however, is that a cherished taste would be missing from the Mac experience. Andy Ver Steegh ƒ?TM09 said, ƒ?oeIƒ?TMm never drinking Pepsi, but if they ban [Coke] itƒ?TMs no big deal. Iƒ?TMll just drink water.ƒ??