BURLINGTON -- It's the real thing. That is, not the soft drink but the Coca-Cola Company's record of environmental and human rights abuses, allege student activists at the University of Vermont. They're calling on the school's administration to break its exclusive contract with Coca-Cola, and asking students to boycott all Coke products until the company changes its ways.
A newly formed student group, the Coalition for a Responsible Coca-Cola (CRC), recently kicked off a campus-wide campaign against the soft drink giant. Working in conjunction with several national organizations, including United Students Against Sweatshops and the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, CRC is modeling its efforts after similar drives at other colleges and universities around the country.
Anti-Coke activists in Burlington and elsewhere contend that, since 1989, the Coca-Cola Company has been complicit in acts of violence against union leaders at its bottling plants in Colombia. Allegations include intimidation, harassment, kidnapping, disappearances and the murders of union leaders and their family members by paramilitary death squads. Similar complaints have also been made about Coca-Cola plants in Turkey and Guatemala.
And in India, Coca-Cola has been accused of contaminating and depleting groundwater, as well as disposing of solid waste laden with heavy metals by giving it to Indian farmers and calling it fertilizer.
Coca-Cola has repeatedly denied those allegations. The company asserts that it has a strong record on protecting human rights and the environment. The Atlanta, Georgia-based corporation has spent millions of dollars trying to put the fizz back into its global reputation, through marketing and media blitzes. These include a program launched a few weeks ago in India to replenish groundwater through five "Rain Water Harvesting Projects."
This hasn't stopped anti-Coke sentiment on many U.S. college campuses in recent months. Already, 23 schools, including the University of Michigan, Rutgers University in New Jersey and New York University, have not renewed their contracts with Coke, suspended the sale of all Coke products or removed their products from campuses entirely. In January, an anti-Coke editorial ran in the student newspaper at Atlanta's Emory University, sometimes referred to as "Coca-Cola University" because of its historic ties to the company.
However, no anti-Coke campaign has ever achieved what UVM activists have proposed -- terminating Coke's contract before it expires. Coca-Cola's 10-year, $4.3 million deal with the university runs through June 30, 2012. That agreement gives the beverage maker exclusive vending rights for all sodas, juices, energy drinks and bottled water sold on campus, including at dining facilities and sporting events. Coke also enjoys semi-exclusive rights to 80 percent of the cooler and shelf space at four on-campus convenience stores.
CRC kicked off its public-education campaign a few weeks ago; more than 75 people gathered in Memorial Lounge in UVM's Waterman Building to hear a firsthand account from former labor activist Luis Cardona about a murder he witnessed. Cardona worked at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia, for 16 years before death threats against him and his family forced him to flee the country.
Speaking by phone from his home in Chicago through a Spanish-language translator in Burlington, Cardona recounted his 12 years as a labor activist. On December 5, 1996, he watched as fellow union leader Isidro Segundo Gil was shot by paramilitary gunmen inside the gates of the Coca-Cola bottling facility. Later that day, Cardona himself was kidnapped, interrogated and threatened by paramilitary forces, but he managed to escape. He claims that the death squads were working on behalf of Coca-Cola's plant managers in an effort to force union employees to resign.
"I asked myself, if my troubles are with the Coca-Cola Company, why am I being made a target of the paramilitary?" Cardona asked. Since 1989, eight other union activists have been killed, and scores of others have been kidnapped, threatened or "disappeared," he added.
Natalia Fajardo, a UVM student and Colombia native, is a CRC organizer. "It matters to me because it is an issue of moral responsibility," she says. Fajardo point out that UVM's "Common Ground" statement of values affirms, "We are a community that unites against all forms of injustice and we are striving to become an environmental leader in the nation." She adds, "We should not do business with a company that is clearly committing both environmental and social abuses throughout the world."
The Coca-Coca bottling company in Colchester employs about 150 people and distributes about two-thirds of the Coca-Cola products sold in the state, including those at UVM, according to General Manager David LaRose. He points out that all Coke beverages bottled and sold in Vermont are manufactured within the United States, and have no connection to Colombian bottlers. LaRose defers all other inquiries about Coke's record on human rights and the environment to the company's headquarters.
Pablo Largacha is director of public affairs and communications with Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Also a native of Colombia, he admits there's a "valid and legitimate cry for help" from some labor activists about that country's ongoing spasms of violence, which have claimed more than 100,000 lives in the last 60 years. However, he asserts that some activists, including union organizers in the United States, have "attached their cause to the Coca-Cola trademark" in an "opportunistic effort" to gain sympathy and international media attention.
Largacha points out that two separate judicial investigations in Colombia have cleared the company of any involvement in anti-union violence. He also notes that Coke was dismissed as a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Miami in 2001.
In a country where violence has deterred all but 5 percent of the total workforce from joining unions, Largacha adds, about 31 percent of Coke's employees in Colombia are unionized.
He downplays the impact of anti-Coke campaigns on college campuses. Some schools, such as St. John's University in New York, have rejected students' efforts to stop the sale of Coke products on campus, Largacha notes. Others, like Rutgers, chose not to renew their Coke contracts because they received more competitive bids from Pepsi. Still others, he asserts, dropped Coke for more practical reasons -- university administrators didn't like being embroiled in complex and murky international disputes.
"For most administrators, their core business is education," Largacha says. "They don't want this thing on top of their desks, causing lots of phone calls and emails to pour in."
UVM Director of Communications Enrique Corredera says the administration is sensitive to students' concerns and is committed to adhering to the university's high ethical business standards. However, he believes that other venues, such as the court system and international bodies, are much better equipped to evaluate the validity of the claims being made against the company. For now, he says, "We feel a great degree of obligation" to honor UVM's contract with Coca-Cola.