The Case Against Coke
While student campaigns have mostly focused on the abuses in Colombia, some have included demands from other countries as well. Few companies have the kind of global reach of Coca-Cola, which has set up a network of bottling partners around the world that allows it to maximize profits by keeping distribution costs down and exploiting lax environmental and labor laws abroad. The first rumblings came from India, where villagers near several Coke bottling plants reported that their wells were dropping, sometimes more than fifty feet; meanwhile, the water they were able to get was tainted by foul-smelling chemicals. Starting in 2002 villagers near Plachimada, in the southern state of Kerala, began a permanent vigil outside the local plant. They finally won an indefinite closure in March 2004, although the case remains an issue in the Kerala High Court.
Villagers started another vigil, at Mehdiganj in central India, this past March. Escalating protests there and at a third plant, in the desert state of Rajasthan, have ended in police attacks on villagers employing Gandhian tactics of nonviolence, which Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center (IRC) lays at Coke's feet. "We know the company has the power to stop the police from resorting to violence," he says, "but it has let this go on without saying a word."
The IRC has been joined in its mission by Corporate Accountability International (CAI), which has attacked Coke on its aggressive push to sell bottled water. "If water becomes a branded product, it's clearly going to undermine the demand and support for publicly managed water systems," says CAI executive director Kathryn Mulvey. "The people who lose out are those who don't have the means to pay top dollar for their water." As a veteran anticorporate campaigner, Mulvey sees the Coke campaign as a new model. "People are taking these abuses that are happening all over the world and bringing them to Coke's headquarters," she says. "Transnational corporations are really surpassing the nation-state as the dominant economic and political institutions. Social change movements need to find ways to come together across borders and strategize."
The broad attack against the company has been a strength for the campaign, allowing diverse groups to share information and recruit greater numbers at protests, as well as making a more difficult target for counterattacks. "The company can't control it," says Rogers. "They realize they can't get rid of one person or group and hope the thing will die." At the same time, the sheer number of charges against Coke raises the question of how and when the campaign can declare victory. On that score, the different groups are clear about their specific goals. The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, for example, has adopted seven demands by SINALTRAINAL, which include a human rights policy for bottling companies and compensation for families of slain workers. The campaign in India calls for closure of certain plants, cleanup of others and compensation for affected villagers.
Many student campaigns have made their top demand an independent investigation into the Colombia abuses. At last year's annual meeting, Coke tried to mollify critics by releasing the results of a company-funded study, which was rejected by students as woefully biased. Still facing the prospect of boycotts at several universities--among them Rutgers, NYU and Michigan--Coke put together a commission of students, school administrators and labor leaders to come up with a protocol for an independent inquiry. "I was honestly hopeful, perhaps naïvely," says USAS's Romero. "It seemed like they were putting this new investment into making things work." From the beginning, however, the company insisted it had a right to be on the commission; even after Coke was booted by the students, it kept putting strictures on the investigation, such as a moratorium on investigating past abuses. The final straw was Coke's insistence that anything uncovered be inadmissible in the court case in Miami, which Collingsworth says is against legal ethics. "We cannot prejudice our clients by agreeing to bury evidence that would support their claims," he wrote in an angry letter to Coke's Ed Potter.