Anti-Coke Activists Hold Panel, Pursue Shareholder Action
Arthur Chu
The Phoenix (Swarthmore College)
April 20, 2005

A large crowd of students, borough residents and parents who had arrived for Family and Friends Weekend gathered in the Scheuer Room last Friday to hear two leading anti-Coca-Cola activists, Ray Rogers and Amit Srivastava, recount the history of their grievances against the corporation and lay out their plans for future action.

The event was organized by the Kick Coke Campaign, a student organization founded this semester to advocate that Swarthmore end its contract with Coca-Cola and stop serving Coca-Cola beverages on campus. The Swarthmore Kick Coke Campaign is working in concert with the national Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, of which Rogers currently acts as director; the campaign has helped organize over 80 anti-Coca-Cola campus groups across the country.

Rogers opened by contrasting the colorful merchandise in the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta with the “World of Killer Coke,” a “world of lies, deception, corruption and gross human rights abuses.” He described an incident in Colombia in 1996 when company-sanctioned right-wing paramilitaries murdered union leader Isidro Gil and burned down union offices in an effort to force workers to abandon the SINALTRAINAL union. “The plant managers had already prepared their resignation forms for them,” said Rogers. “What choice did they have?” Quoting one SINALTRAINAL representative, he said, “If we lose this battle against Coca-Cola, first we will lose our union; then we will lose our jobs; then we will lose our lives.”

“This is not an aberration,” Rogers said, referring to similar attacks against Guatemalan Coca-Cola employees in the 1980s, when “a huge international campaign of protests and boycotts kept the Guatemalan trade union movement alive.” “This time,” he said, “we need to step up and say, ‘We’re going to put a stop to this and we’re never going to let it happen again.’”

Amit Srivastava, the director of Global Resistance, a member of the People’s Forum Against Coca-Cola, named South Asia as his stop on the “world tour of the World of Killer Coke.” Srivastava attacked Coca-Cola’s water usage policies, which he claimed have left at least six rural communities with a severely lowered water table, with the remaining groundwater severely polluted by cleaning agents. “Given that today, over 70 percent of Indians make a living directly or indirectly related to agriculture,” said Srivastava, “if you take away the water, then poison the water and the land, it’s a sure recipe for disaster.”

Srivastava also mentioned that Coca-Cola had offered solid wastes to local farmers as fertilizer that, in a BBC-sponsored study in which Srivastava participated, were found to have high levels of toxic heavy metals. He described the findings of the New Delhi Center for Science and Environment, which reported that Coca-Cola’s products in India contain 34 times the amount of pesticide contaminants allowable in the United States or Europe. Srivistava cited this as “yet another clear example of a double standard held by a multinational corporation for developing countries.”

Srivastava, too, ended on a positive note, talking about the strength and speed of the growth of grassroots activism “in a country where the memory of Bhopal is still fresh for many,” and citing recent challenges by local village councils to the expansion of Coca-Cola plants as “Indians teaching the world a thing or two about how to defend common property.” Even so, he emphasized the need for international support for such movements: “Your role is cut out. You, living in the United States, have, relatively speaking, much more power over these companies.”

After the event, Rogers said that his work with Swarthmore students, including hiring Kaiko Shimura ’05 as an intern at the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, was an uplifting experience. “If you’re looking for young people who can make the world a better place, you’ll find them here,” said Rogers.

Sarah Roberts ’08, one of the event’s organizers, described her initial doubts upon hearing about the campaign last semester — “Oh, another boycott, how nice!” — but explained how she came to later change her views, pointing to Rogers’ stated strategy of “creating a boycott image without saying ‘boycott’.” “Boycotts focused on what individual people choose to buy are very hard,” she said, “but this is focused on institutions … People who really like Coke can choose to go to the Ville and buy their own, without Swarthmore lending its name to it.” She described campus response to the campaign as initially slow, but was optimistic. “I respect that Swatties won’t just sign the petition; they’ll read the documents. But everyone we’ve talked to has either been really supportive or wanted to learn more.”

Swarthmore was Rogers and Srivastava’s last stop on a speaking tour of colleges in the Northeast, to culminate in demonstrations at the Coca-Cola shareholders meeting in Wilmington, Del. on Tuesday. Treasury Operations assistant Carmen Duffy, Alix Gould-Werth ’07, Jonathan Petkun ’07 and Charlie Sussman ’05 attended the meeting on behalf of the Committee for Socially Responsible Investing. The CSRI had previously decided to vote in favor of a shareholder resolution written by the New York City Pension Funds demanding that Coca-Cola open an independent investigation into allegations of anti-union violence in Colombia. Gould-Werth and Petkun are both also members of the Kick Coke Campaign.

Gould-Werth, who first wrote the CSRI proposal that Swarthmore support the resolution with its 58,000 shares, said, “We thought it’d be cool to go and speak in favor of the resolution … The meeting was extremely dominated by stuff the Kick Coke Campaign has been working on, the Indian water rights issue and the Colombian labor issue.”

Petkun was one of the shareholder representatives who spoke up at the meeting, confronting Coca-Cola Chairman E. Neville Isdell about whether plans existed to respond to the NYC Pension Fund resolution. “[Isdell] denied all activist allegations, of course, as was to be expected,” said Gould-Werth. “Jon tried to ask his question early on, and [Isdell] claimed he’d already addressed it and kept trying to cut him off, but he kept asking anyway and forced him to answer … That was our moment.”

Petkun remembered a high level of activist presence at the meeting: “There were maybe a few hundred people there, and out of them maybe 50, 60, even a hundred were activists.” Gould-Werth added, “There were big demonstrations outside, but there were almost as many activists inside the meeting as outside.”

Gould-Werth and Petkun were both excited about the possibility of imminent change. “We’ve been working on this as the CSRI since the very beginning of our term,” said Petkun. “The goal for us was to bird-dog the issue on the Coke people … The more you get the issue in front of them, the more you pressure them, the more you have to do something about it.”

The resolution did not pass but did gain five percent of the shareholder vote, which Petkun described as highly successful for a new resolution. “It’s enough for the issue to stay in front of people for enough time to get that critical mass … through resolutions, people writing letters, things like the Kick Coke campaign. I think [Coca-Cola] will have to respond in the next few years.”

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