Opinion: Kicking the Habit: University Must Terminate Coke Contracts Now
In a closed meeting held last week, the University’s Dispute Review
Board found the Coca-Cola Company guilty of two of Coke Coalition’s
four allegations: the presence of pesticides in Coke products in India
and labor violations in Columbia. In light of the board’s findings,
Coke is in direct violation of the University’s Code of Conduct for
University Vendors, and the University should immediately terminate
its contracts with Coke and only consider renewing them after Coke
can prove that it has properly addressed both violations. It currently
appears, however, that the DRB will unwisely recommend that the University
maintain its contracts until September and then renew them on a month-by-month
basis, pending Coke’s efforts to improve its human rights policy.
The final decision to renew the contracts, totaling about $1.3 million
annually, rests with the University’s executive vice president and
chief financial officer, Tim Slottow. It is not too late for Slottow
to do what his counterpart at New York University recently failed
to do: cancel all 12 contracts with Coca-Cola immediately while offering
the possibility of renewal when the violations are rectified.
Six colleges and universities in the United States so far have dropped
their contracts with Coke in response to the allegations. This leaves
the University with the opportunity to be the first major university
to put significant pressure on Coke to promptly address its human
rights practices. University students led the way in boycotting Nike
in the late 1990s, and the University administration’s pressure on
Nike combined with the efforts of students at other schools to create
the mountain of negative publicity that ultimately motivated Nike
to improve worker conditions. In hopes of regaining the lucrative
university contracts and restoring its tarnished reputation, Nike
disclosed the locations of its plants and raised wages — sufficient
conditions for the University to reinstate its contract. The University
administration also played an important role by joining the Workers
Rights Consortium and inserting a clause regarding workers wages which
incited Nike to temporarily pull out of negotiations. By taking decisive
action against Coke, the University could again play a leading role
in a nationwide movement; cutting its contracts now would galvanize
student activists on campuses across the nation and force Coke to
address its practices.
In addition to what will likely be a disappointing outcome, it is
unfortunate that the hearings regarding this matter were conducted
behind closed doors. While such secrecy may not be a technical violation
of the state’s Open Meetings Act, it is unnecessary in a matter that
affects the entire student body, and the decision goes against the
spirit of openness in such proceedings.
Whether or not the University ultimately holds Coke accountable for
its practices, the students driving the Coke Coalition — as well as
their predecessors, whose activism resulted in creation of the DRB
and the Code of Conduct for University Vendors — should be commended.
And the efforts of student activists propelling the anti-Coke movement
here and on other campuses have uncovered violations that otherwise
would have gone unnoticed and unpunished. The presence of this institution
will be a true asset at the University for years to come, giving it
a viable mode of resolving conflicts like this one.
The University must act quickly to cancel its contracts with Coca-Cola
or risk losing the power to change Coke’s unacceptable treatment of
its workers. While complacency with the status quo may be the path
of least resistance, issues like these must take precedence over the
profitability and convenience of a long-term contract. Like Nike,
Coke will only remedy its practices with significant pressure and
the fear of a tarnished image, and the University must not delay in
sending a clear signal.
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