Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Cola Wars

By David Canfield
Metroland, Read Newspaper
SUNY Albany
March 10, 2007

Citing human-rights abuses, student and labor groups unite in an attempt to remove Coca-Cola products from UAlbany

"In Colombia, you could get killed for organizing a union," said Manuel Ortiz. "[Colombia has] the highest rate of assassinations and murders of trade unionists anywhere in the world. Coca-Cola knows what's going on, and they're just trying to ignore the situation."

Ortiz is a member of the local chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, which joined forces last Thursday (March 1) with local student and labor groups to support Killer Coke, a campaign led by longtime labor organizer Ray Rogers. Killer Coke alledges that Coca-Cola has has turned a blind eye to the brutal crackdown by paramilitary forces on union organizing efforts at their bottling plants in Colombia. The campaign aims to remove Coca-Cola products from college campuses by making students aware of the company's neglect for human rights abroad.

Locally, they are focusing on the University at Albany, which has an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola to sell Coke, Sprite, Vault, Fanta, Nestea, Minute Maid juices, and Dasani water.

The event was sponsored by University Auxiliary Services, which has the contract with Coca-Cola and handles various other UAlbany student services. UAS executive director Julia Filippone said that they want to present a variety of viewpoints in keeping with the university's goal of being a "marketplace of ideas," and that is why Rogers was brought in. "We encourage students to be responsible about their information," she said.

When he was first approached about Coca-Cola's record, Rogers said that the accusations seemed to be "off the wall," but after investigating and uncovering numerous cases where employees of Coca-Cola bottling companies had been murdered by paramilitary forces for trying to unionize, Rogers' organization, Corporate Campaign Inc., adopted the cause.

"We made a commitment that we would get involved," he said. "We're going to put a stop to what's happening in Colombia."

Rogers said that the campaign has gotten Coke products removed from 34 schools—most in the United States, but some in England, Ireland, Canada, and Italy, including some large universities like New York University and Rutgers.

The student groups have set an arbitrary deadline of March 27 for UAlbany to sever their contract with Coke, which expires in 2008. Jackie Hayes, a UAlbany doctoral student interning with the Killer Coke campaign, said that the students plan to make phone calls to university officials, protest outside administration buildings, and finally deliver to the administration, "preferably in a wheelbarrow," all the evidence of Coke's abuses.

The students groups said that it would be ideal for the university to deal with multiple companies instead of one exclusive contract. Hayes said that supporting local businesses would be a good choice. "It's a lot easier, I think, to hold local companies accountable, because it's really difficult when you find out a company like Coca-Cola is committing these human-rights and environmental abuses—they're impenetrable," she said. "They put a lot of money between themselves and their customers, and so there's really no way to hold them accountable for anything that they're doing."

"I don't know if [local companies] can meet our needs," said Filippone, needs that include 200 vending machines, more than 50 fountain mixes, and sales of 1.5 million bottles per year. But she said that, while bidding on the contract has yet to begin, bids will be accepted from any party and that local companies are not out of the question.

The Killer Coke press conference and panel discussion Thursday drew a crowd of about 35. Hayes said that a lot of students aren't even aware of the fact that UAlbany has an exclusive contract with Coke, let alone that the company has a poor human-rights record. "I think a lot of it is that people haven't heard what's going on," Hayes said, "because Coca-Cola does a really good job at fighting that getting out and puts so much money into public relations."

Ray Rogers agreed. "You have to understand that Coca-Cola is a company that spends billions of dollars a year—about 3 billion dollars a year, actually—in advertising to create an image or a reality that has nothing to do with the ugly reality that is the company."

That reality, according to Rogers, is the kidnapping, torture, and murder of union organizers by paramilitary forces. Rogers detailed the accusations during the panel, describing environmental abuses as well. He said that he would like to debate Coca-Cola representatives directly, but that they will not debate him. By the end, his lecture took on a decidedly anti-corporate tone, and Rogers suggested that perhaps they could take on ExxonMobil next.

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