Activists Take Campaign Against Coca-Cola to McMaster
By Colin Perkel
Canadian Press
October 17, 2005

TORONTO (CP) - Questions about freedom of choice and alleged human rights abuses half a world away are being debated in a referendum this week as students at McMaster University decide whether they want Coca-Cola to be the only soft drink sold on campus.

The vote is whether to oppose the school's exclusive multimillion-dollar contract with Coke, a company critics have alleged is linked to violent paramilitary security forces in Colombia and degradation of the environment in India.

"We're supposedly learning ideals about freedom of choice and democracy and making educated decisions," Adam Tracey, 22, a lead organizer of the referendum, said from Hamilton.

"This isn't just about taste: The real problem is for people making ethical decisions not to drink Coca-Cola."

More than 17,000 full-time students will be eligible to cast ballots Wednesday and Thursday on McMaster University's 10-year, $6-million deal with the company, inked in 1998.

The campaign wraps up Tuesday evening with an address by American activist Ray Rogers, president of Corporate Campaign Inc. and director of what the group calls the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke.

In a phone call from New York, Rogers branded Coca-Cola as a company that's complicit in human-rights and environmental abuses.

"I could not believe what I was finding with respect to what has always been described as the 'real thing' when I realized the many horrible things that they're involved in," Rogers said.

"When people think of Coca-Cola, they should think of a company that has inflicted great hardship and despair on many people and communities throughout the world."

Rogers cited witnesses and an ongoing lawsuit filed in the U.S. in 2001 by the United Steelworkers Union and a Colombian trade union alleging that paramilitary groups had murdered seven union leaders and a friendly plant manager at Coke plants in Colombia.

In India and Ghana, he said, the company used so much groundwater that supplies for entire villages were destroyed.

The Atlanta-based corporation blasted the allegations as "false," saying in a statement the company had been "an exemplary member" of Colombia's business community. "We value the partnership that Coca-Cola Bottling Company has with McMaster University," said Stephanie Baxter, a senior manager with Coca-Cola Canada in Toronto.

"Our local bottler will continue to work closely with the university to ensure we are meeting their needs and the needs of their students." Active anti-Coke campaigns are being waged on campuses across the U.S. and Canada, among them the University of British Columbia, Queens and Western.

Already, the student union at the University of Guelph has terminated its part of an exclusivity pact, while at the University of Saskatchewan, students at one college are refusing to take money from a Coke deal with their school.

Some students take issue with what they consider to be secrecy surrounding such deals while others focus on Coke's human rights record. For others the issue is a lack of funding for universities.

"Coca-Cola is violating fundamental human rights in India, Colombia and many other parts of the world," said Ram Sivapalan, a vice-president with Ryerson's student union.

"(But) the over-arching issue is that we need more public funding in our post-secondary institutions, so our universities don't need to turn to big unethical corporations."

Tracey agreed some students worry tuition will rise without the Coke revenue. The money, however, is only a tiny fraction of the school's overall annual budget, he added. Roger Trull, a McMaster vice-president, said the Coke money is important to the university.

"If we didn't have a contract like this, would we miss the money? Absolutely," said Trull. The referendum asks whether the student union should oppose the contract, renew its own memorandum with the school regarding the deal, and whether it should urge the university not to renew the agreement.

Trull said the vote is partly academic because the current agreement is binding and won't be changed.

However, the the results will factor into the school's thinking in any future exclusive beverage deals, he said.

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