Comeback for Coke?

U. of Michigan abandons boycott. Its officials says the company agreed to real changes, but activists say the shift is a sham.
April 12, 2006

The movement to boycott Coca-Cola has been around for a few years, gaining support from a dozen or so colleges, many of them relatively small institutions. So when two large, prominent universities -- New York University and the University of Michigan -- joined the boycott in December, their moves were seen as creating real momentum for the movement.

But on Tuesday, it was Coke that had reason to celebrate. Michigan announced an agreement under which the beverage giant agreed to take certain steps to investigate allegations of mistreatment of workers and environmental damage by Coke in India and Colombia -- charges that the company has denied. As a result of those pledges, Michigan announced it was immediately resuming the purchase of Coke. (And we're not just talking about a few soft drinks, but spending of about $1.4 million annually at the university.)

Michigan officials said that the agreement with Coke provided -- for the first time -- for independent investigation of the allegations against the company. That view is extremely significant because several other universities that have taken action against Coke or are considering it -- including NYU -- have also focused on demands for an independent investigation. But anti-Coke activists say that the university has been duped and that the investigations promised by Coke are compromised.

In theory, Coke's critics and the company have agreed that a logical way to deal with the dispute is to have independent investigations of the charges. But what constitutes independence?

In the case of Coke's activities in Colombia, the investigation will be conducted by the International Labor Organization, a unit of the United Nations. Michigan's announcement noted that the ILO is known for its commitment to workers' rights to unionize and to express democratic freedoms. In India, investigations of allegations of environmental damage will be coordinated by the Energy and Resources Institute, a nonprofit organization.

Michigan's announcement characterized these groups as "independent" and noted that both groups are well respected.

Ray Rogers, director of the Worldwide Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, said that Michigan officials were  "either dumb or in bed with the Coca-Cola Company." Rogers said that the ILO was set up to study the actions of countries, not companies, and that however well intentioned, it cannot conduct the kinds of inquiries that are needed. As for the nonprofit group in India, Rogers noted that it receives philanthropic support for several project from Coke.

"This is all just a public relations sham," he said.

Julie Peterson, a Michigan spokeswoman, strongly disputed that. She said that these groups had longstanding reputations as being willing to investigate situations fairly and would not risk those reputations by just saying whatever Coke wanted. She also challenged the idea that the Indian group was suspect because it receives some support from Coke. Peterson noted that the University of Michigan receives considerable corporate support -- and regularly produces research that takes a variety of stands on issues important to those companies.

An NYU spokesman said that his university had not been notified by Coke about the investigations of the allegations against the company. But the spokesman said that the key demand of its University Senate was for independent investigations, and that the developments could lead to a reconsideration of the boycott. But he said it was too soon to tell if NYU would be satisfied.


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