Boycott movements on college campuses tend to take hold (or fade away) based on whether a critical mass of well known institutions participate. So critics of Coca-Cola have much to celebrate as 2006 begins. They say that 23 colleges worldwide have now banned Coke products from their campuses. And they have now hit a total of 10 in the United States, including bans approved in December by two large institutions -- New York University and the University of Michigan.
The anti-Coke movement says that the beverage giant is complicit in murders and attacks on union organizers in Colombia and in environmental damage in India -- charges that the company strongly denies.
Coke acknowledges that many of the countries in which it does business do not have the labor or environmental standards of the United States, but the company says that it is a good corporate citizen, and is helping union organizers and environmentalists. And in an argument clearly designed to reach the hearts of student activists, the company is also now arguing that the boycott is in some cases taking business away from unionized workers in the United States and helping non-union businesses.
Colleges frequently hesitate to participate in boycotts, with many administrators arguing that their responsibility is to provide goods and services to students and employees in efficient, inexpensive ways. And many college officials say that they are not in a position to judge the state of labor relations or the environment thousands of miles from their campuses.
But the anti-Coke movement is making gains in part by having colleges adopt policies in which they request certain assurances from Coke -- such as agreeing to have third party, independent monitors investigate various charges. When the company is unable or unwilling to offer such assurances, it is losing university business.
"We are costing Coke tens of millions of dollars, and this is growing," said Ray Rogers, director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, which is coordinating many of the campus efforts. Currently, there are more than 100 campaigns at colleges and universities to either ban Coke or to end exclusive contracts with the company. Rogers said that major targets in coming months would be the City and State Universities of New York, and the Universities of California, Minnesota and Montana.
NYU's ban was based on a vote by the University Senate that cited the company's failure to agree to a third-party investigation of the allegations against Coke in Colombia. Michigan's announcement last week said that the university had believed it was making progress toward setting up a third-party investigation, but that Coke had indicated that recent lawsuits in Colombia would make it impossible for the company to agree to such an inquiry.
Coke has had about $1.4 million annually in sales at Michigan.
The campaign against Coke is an outgrowth of the movement that in the 1990s pushed colleges to take steps to insure good treatment of foreign workers at the companies that produce clothing with college logos or the sneaker companies that sign deals with athletic departments.
Coke has responded to the new campaign with a series of visits by company officials to campuses and a Web site, Coke Facts, with the company's take on its foreign operations.
Kari Bjorhus, a spokeswoman for Coke, called the boycott efforts "misguided and unfortunate." She said she didn't think the movement had momentum, and said that the company was working to prevent that from happening. She said that the protests against the company were "a distraction" from its efforts to help labor and the environment in various countries with Coke plants. She said she hoped that colleges would "be open to hearing the facts" about the company's operations before making decisions.
Bjorhus said that the problems facing union leaders in Colombia are real, but that they are not linked to Coke. She said almost one-third of Coke's employees in the country are unionized, compared to an average in that country of about 4 percent.
She also questioned whether the boycott by American colleges really helps unions. Carleton College is one of the American colleges that have banned Coke, and Bjorhus said that the policy took work away from Coke's unionized bottlers in Minnesota and gave the work to Pepsi's non-unionized bottlers. (Carleton officials could not be reached for comment.)
Rogers said that Coke was being deceptive in raising the issue of its unionized workers in the United States. "They are trying to play one group off against another," he said. Union members also understand, he said, "that solidarity requires pain," and that the attacks on union leaders in Colombia need to be stopped.
When colleges drop Coke, Rogers said that he hopes that they replace its products with locally produced drinks and "with beverages that are more healthy than the soda that these companies are producing." Rogers said that he's not a fan of Pepsi, but that the company is not facing the sort of complaints Coke is.
"I don't tell the colleges to go to Pepsi, but do I lose sleep when they do? No," he said.
Rogers also said that the anti-Coke efforts are gaining ground even on campuses where no ban has been approved. The negative publicity leads many students to make an individual choice not to purchase Coke products, and adds to the pressure on the company, he said.
One campaign that he doesn't expect to win, but that he's particularly enjoying, is at Emory University, which like Coke is based in Atlanta. Generations of corporate philanthropy from Coke and its executives have had a huge impact at the university. Students joke that their institution could be called "Coke U." and an article in The Emory Wheel, the student newspaper, said that to many on the campus, a ban on Coke "sounds about as reasonable as a campus ban on water."
But that article also details the charges being made against Coke and the feelings of some Emory students that they need to go after the company -- regardless of its ties to the university. "We're not looking for a big breakthrough there," said Rogers. "But the fact that we've got something brewing at Emory, that says a lot."