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Coke: the New Nike

May 5, 2005

Coke is it -- the latest target of the student activism movement.

At scores of colleges in the United States (as well as Canada and parts of Europe), student groups have been urging campus administrators to abandon or shorten contracts with the Coca-Cola Company, citing charges of human rights abuses of union members trying to organize Coca-Cola plants in Colombia and of environmental wrongdoing by Coca-Cola bottlers in India.

The "corporate responsibility" campaign, at colleges such the University of Michigan, Hofstra University and New York University, has been taken up by many of the same groups that formed in the 1990s to challenge the "sweatshop" treatment of workers in foreign plants in which Nike, Reebok and other manufacturers produce clothing and athletic goods that bear universities' names.

So far, the Coke campaign has made relatively little headway. Colleges have made few concessions to student protesters, and officials from Coca-Cola have consistently denied the charges and -- frustrating even some college administrators -- shown little interest in engaging in meaningful discussions.

Tomorrow, though, in Washington, executives from Coca-Cola will meet for the first time with a broad group of college administrators and students to discuss the issue. Student leaders and college administrators have somewhat differing takes on how meaningful the private meeting is and divergent expectations on what it might produce.

"The goal here is sharing of information and points of view," said Larry Mann, associate vice chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was among the officials who organized the meeting. "We hope it will be a productive, orderly meeting."

Leaders of the anti-Coke movement doubt that meaningful discussion will take place, given how carefully controlled it is. Only those students who are part of official delegations approved by their institutions will be allowed to participate, and leaders of national groups will be on the outside looking in.

"Students are very skeptical of what's going to take place," said Camilo Romero, who challenged Coke as a student at the University of California at Berkeley and now works on the issue as a full-time organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops. "There have already been other opportunities for Coke to do its 'show and tells.' "

Students and administrators agree, though, that the students' pressure on their institutions, and in turn the institutions' pressure on Coke, have gotten the company to the table.

"I want to hear what they have to say," said Jim Wilkerson, director of trademark licensing at Duke University, who will be among the university administrators at the meeting. "At this point, I'm a bit concerned that it's taken almost a year to get Coke to meet with a group of us."

Kerry Kerr, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, acknowledged that the company had agreed to meet "at the request of a number of colleges and universities" with which it does business. She said Coke officials viewed the meeting as an "opportunity to continue the dialogue with administrators, faculty and students" about "our business practices in Colombia and India." She added: "We take their concerns seriously" but plan to "address facts about the misinformation about our practices."

The company has produced a Web site that defends its corporate behavior in Colombia and India and strongly denies any role in the most serious allegations, which is that bottlers in Colombia had ties to paramilitary groups that murdered and intimidated union leaders there. In India, critics accuse Coke bottlers of contributing to a major water shortage and contaminating groundwater.

Coke's opponents -- especially a labor-financed group known as the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke -- want the company to step in to protect workers in Colombia and to change the environmental practices of its plants in India.

Officials at institutions that have relationships of various kinds with Coke -- especially extensive "pouring rights" deals in which Coke provides all beverages on a campus or athletics sponsorship arrangements -- say those arrangements make the charges against the company the institutions' problem, too.

"Our reputation and good names are brought into this controversy because of this association," said Mann of Illinois, which has an exclusive deal with Coke.

Like many of their peers elsewhere, students at Illinois have pushed the university to end its relationship with Coke. Like many of his peers, Mann said that doing so would decrease the pressure on Coke, not intensify it. "We share the students' concerns, but our view is that if we want to be a part of finding a solution, we're not going to be able to do that if we have no relationship with Coke."

Administrators and students have largely agreed, though, on one compromise course of action: getting Coca-Cola to agree to bring in an independent group to investigate the situations in both Colombia and India. "Coke continues to take the position that it has not been involved in any inappropriate behavior or actions in either Colombia or India," said Mann. "If so, it would seem logical that Coke would be very much interested in inviting in an independent group, much as was done in the anti-sweatshop initiative, to look over its shoulder and assure the public that in fact everything is at it ought to be."

Romero, of United Students Against Sweatshops, said that while Coca-Cola hired a company last year to audit its bottling operations in Colombia, Coke has repeatedly rejected the idea of having the Worker Rights Consortium or another "truly independent" group play such a role.

Even if Friday's meeting produces some momentum in the campaign to pressure change at Coca-Cola, the coming of summer and the disappearance of students is likely to derail it, at least temporarily. But Romero and other leaders of the student movement say they'll keep the pressure up.

"We're hoping that administrators will actually put their pants on and present a united front with us," he said. "But our recent experience has been that it's going to require students being more and more militant that will make administrators move, and eventually Coca-Cola move."

 

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