Ever since its “I’d like to teach the world to sing” commercials from the 1970s, Coca-Cola has billed itself as the world’s beverage, uniting all colors and cultures within its red-and-white swoosh. Behind that image, however, a growing student movement is taking the company to task for its less than harmonious record of human rights around the globe.
Chief among the accusations is the company’s alleged complicity in the murder of union members by paramilitaries at bottling plants in Colombia. So far, six colleges and universities in the United States–including Carleton, Oberlin and Bard–have responded to a call by the Colombian beverages union for a boycott, either by canceling contracts or banning vending machines. Campaigns are active at about ninety more, making this the largest anticorporate campaign since the one against Nike. “Coke sells an image,” says Camilo Romero, a national organizer with United Students Against Sweatshops. “As with any campaign like this, it is hurting its image that will hurt their bottom line.”
Romero says that in addition to boycotts, students will soon be conducting sit-ins similar to those that helped publicize sweatshop abuses by Nike and other companies in the late 1990s. That campaign had mixed results; Nike eventually disclosed the locations of its factories and raised wages slightly but failed to follow through on other promises to monitor abuses. More recently, a student campaign helped contribute to a victory against Taco Bell by migrant workers fighting to raise the priced paid to them for tomatoes they picked.
Fresh from that success, Romero appeared last month before a packed auditorium at Smith College, where the administration has so far responded favorably to student calls for a Coke boycott. With him was Javier Correa, president of the Colombian union SINALTRAINAL, who spoke of a decade of violence that has resulted in the deaths of eight workers. As an example, he told the story of Isidro Gil, who was shot dead in 1996 at the bottling plant; a week later, paramilitaries entered the plant and forced workers to sign letters of resignation from the union at gunpoint. Coca-Cola directly controls the bottling facilities through their contracts, said Correa, who says he has himself escaped three assassination attempts. “It’s clear they have the power to stop what’s happening.”
In an e-mail, Coke’s issues director, Lori George Billingsley, denies that the companies or its bottlers have been involved in the violence. “We are disappointed in the student boycotts because the campaigns are based on inaccuracies regarding the situation on the ground, ” she writes. The company recently announced that it will be conducting audits of worker conditions around the world, but it has stopped short of agreeing to demands for an independent investigation into the murders.