Hillel Votes to Ban all Coke Products at Michigan University
By Jeremy Davidson
Michigan Daily
November 23, 2005

For the past year, Coca-Cola’s beverages have not been the only aspect of the company under pressure — the soft-drink giant has fought allegations of human rights violations in Colombia and India and is now preparing to confront critics in court.

Pre-trial tension has built between Terry Collingsworth, an attorney representing union workers from Colombia, and Ed Potter, director of Global Labor Relations for Coca-Cola.

Collingsworth’s suit argues that Coca-Cola has been complicit in the intimidation, murder and torture of union workers in Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia.

Coca-Cola is also under fire at the University, where the campus chapter of Hillel voted last week to ban all Coke products at Hillel-sponsored events, saying Coke’s labor practices in India and Colombia are not in line with Jewish values of labor rights and environmental justice.

“As a member of the (Coke Campaign) coalition and of the Jewish community, I am excited that Hillel is taking a stand on this issue,” said RC junior and Hillel member Jory Hearst. “I think it will serve as a great influence in the Michigan community.”

Coke’s lawyer, Potter, requested that all plaintiffs sign an agreement that would prevent them from using any evidence gathered from independent investigations conducted by universities.

Collingsworth wrote in a letter to Potter dated Nov. 14 that his request, combined with the company’s inadequate internal investigations of the human rights violations, indicates that Coca-Cola either doesn’t know what happened in Colombia or has been lying to consumers.

“If you know the facts will exonerate Coca-Cola, Ed, then let’s do the investigation and agree that the final report and the supporting evidence is admissible in court,” Collingsworth wrote. “In fact, let’s agree to split the cost of publishing 10,000 copies and sending the report to every university in the world.”

Student members of the Coke Campaign Coalition — a campus group pressing the University to sever its contracts with Coca-Cola — supported Collingsworth’s position.

“It’s pretty obvious that if Coca-Cola wasn’t afraid that something would be found, they wouldn’t try to take legal measures to obscure the information,” said RC senior and coalition member Clara Hardie.

Potter vehemently rejected Collingsworth’s implications in a letter dated Nov. 16.

“For someone I have known for more than a decade, and with whom I have had most cordial dealings, I find your November 14, 2005 letter to me to be an astonishingly misleading and self-serving letter,” Potter wrote, “Your claim that we are attempting to ‘bury’ relevant information under the inadmissibility agreement is completely false and disingenuous,” he said.

Potter argued that Collingsworth should be able to build his case without relying on the results of the universities’ investigation.

“If, as you claim you already have such facts and information, the draft agreement provides that you will still be able to introduce such evidence in the litigation,” he wrote. “Your response confirms our conclusion that you do not have any such evidence.”

Collingsworth responded to Potter’s claims in a letter dated Nov. 21, writing, “Any reasonable interpretation of (your proposal) is that it is designed to preclude us from using in court any new evidence that is uncovered in the investigation. As you know, it would be an ethical violation for me to agree to bury evidence that could assist my clients in trial.”

The University’s Dispute Review Board — charged with investigating whether the University’s investments comply with the University’s Vendor Code of Conduct — decided in June that Coca-Cola must take actions by specific deadlines to maintain its $1.3 million in contracts with the University. Though it was unclear whether Coca-Cola met its first deadline on Sept. 30, the date by which it had been required to agree to an independent audit of its labor practices, after two weeks of deliberation the University, decided not to take action against Coke.

The University’s position has been that as long as Coke is acting in “good faith” in its efforts to address the University’s concerns and meet the deadlines, it will not cut its contracts with the company. Peggy Norgren, the University’s associate vice president for finance, did not return four calls and an e-mail seeking comment.

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