NYU may soon wash its hands of Coca-Cola

By
Thursday, November 10, 2005

The University Senate of New York University voted Nov. 3 to ban Coca-Cola products from its campus if the company does not agree to an independent investigation into alleged human rights violations at its Colombian plants.

If Coca-Cola does not meet NYU’s Dec. 8 deadline, the university will join an expanding group of institutions challenging the beverage giant by removing Coca-Cola products from their campuses. Nineteen schools, not including NYU, have already banned Coca-Cola products or brought in additional vendors to increase competition, said Ray Rogers, director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke.

Bard College, Oberlin College and Rutgers University have all banned Coca-Cola, Rogers said.

The campaign alleges that Coca-Cola supported the assassination of eight trade unionists by Colombian paramilitary groups and has used other intimidation tactics.

A commission of students, administrators and representatives from organizations, including the United Students Against Sweatshops and the Worker Rights Consortium, began meeting this summer to create an independent investigation of the alleged abuses. Only schools with contracts with Coca-Cola, including Duke University and the University of Michigan, have representatives on the commission. NYU has been working closely with the commission, but is not officially represented because NYU does not have a contract with Coca-Cola.

The commission would also like Coca-Cola to provide security for workers so they can unionize without being threatened. If the company is found guilty of the murders, the comission wants Coca-Cola to pay reparations to victims’ families, said Jessica Rutter, a national organizer of the Killer Coke campaign and a USAS staffer.

The campaign is also concerned with the firing of trade unionists in Turkey and the pollution of water sources in India. The more USAS looks into allegations, the more violations the group uncovers, Rutter said.

“It’s important that Coca-Cola and other players in the food and beverage industry start to take responsibility for the communities in which they’re producing their goods,” she said.

“People are dying. People are losing their water. These are issues we can’t ignore,” she added. “Our universities are complicit by having these contracts.”

The NYU decision comes after more than two years of work by students, said Dave Hancock, an NYU junior and member of NYU’s chapter of the campaign. In August 2003, SINALTRAINAL, the union representing the majority of Coke bottling workers in Colombia, issued a call for an international boycott, sparking a student campaign at NYU and other universities, Hancock said.

The campaign then held events including marches and mock funerals and met with administrators and members of NYU’s University Committee on Student Life to discuss banning Coca-Cola, he said.

By December 2004, the UCSL voted to recommend to the University Senate that the school boycott Coca-Cola. The senate postponed the ban twice, and instead took smaller actions including writing a letter to Coca-Cola to request an independent investigation.

Coca-Cola sent two representatives to the university last month to address students’ concerns, but the representatives “could not satisfactorily answer anyone’s questions,” Hancock said.

“(Coca-Cola) is certainly paying attention to us,” said Arthur Tannenbaum, an NYU library curator and chair of the senate’s public affairs committee. He said he supports NYU’s decision to ban Coca-Cola products from campus if the university’s demands are not met but is “a little bit apprehensive that this action might shut the door on direct negotiations.”

NYU’s ultimatum comes on the heels of the breakup of the national commission. On Oct. 26 students dropped out, claiming that Coke was repeatedly stalling.

The company hired Cal Safety Compliance Corporation, a for-profit company whose credibility the commission questioned, to complete an investigation, Rutter said. Coca-Cola also resisted looking into the murders, which was the central focus of their campaign, she said.

“We really felt that Coke was hiding behind this commission,” Rutter said. “In the face of complaints, Coke would say, ‘Well, we’re part of a commission,’ ” she said.

Hancock said the proposed ban has been largely well-received on campus. He said the most common argument against banning Coke is that it is an extreme action to take when so many companies violate workers’ rights in one way or another.

“But most people understand that … you need to start with an egregious offender,” Hancock said. “Coca-Cola is an egregious offender.”

Because it is the largest private university in the country and because Barry Diller, an NYU trustee, is on Coca-Cola’s board of directors, “New York University would set such an example” if it ultimately banned Coke, Rogers said.

“Coca-Cola cares a lot about the youth market,” Rutter said. “Having youth lead the movement is important.”

Coca-Cola spokeswoman Kari Bjorhus said the allegations against the company are untrue. Two Colombian inquiries, in addition to the Cal Safety review, found no evidence of unfair labor practices, she said.

Bjorhus also said it would be unlikely that Coca-Cola would agree to an independent investigation by NYU’s deadline. Coca-Cola remains open to another impartial investigation, but certain conditions must be met, according to Bjorhus. For example, Coca-Cola would like the commission to interview both union and non-union workers and to look at a large number of facilities in Colombia.

Brown is not involved in the Killer Coke Campaign, although the issue has come up several times, said Student Labor Alliance member Christopher Eaton ’06. The SLA is currently focusing its efforts on compelling the University to make school apparel in designated “sweat-free” factories.

But Eaton said a Killer Coke campaign would be valuable on campus.