The UnKicking of Coke

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

by Brendan Work

The decision to bring back Coca-Cola, made by the administration late in the Spring semester, has been greeted by some with enthusiasm and others with disappointment. The college administration has pointed to both economic necessity and Coke’s allegedly improved practices in the arena of labor rights as reason for making the switch. While many members of SLAP and former members of Kick Coke are sympathetic to the claim of economic necessity, they are not impressed with Coke’s labor reforms. However, members have taken this opportunity to press on other important labor issues such as developing ethical purchasing guidelines and continuing their commitment to card-check neutrality for the proposed Swarthmore Inn.

Kick Coke, which was part of a nationwide campaign across college campuses called “Killer Coke,” centered its opposition to Coca-Cola along three central points. First, the group alleged that Coke had hired paramilitaries in Colombia to murder heads of labor unions. Second, Coke was charged with draining communal water sources and depleting resources in farm communities that housed its plants in
India. Finally, the group targeted Coke because of its position as one of the largest corporations in the world and leader of the market.

In February of 2006, the college terminated its bottle Coke contract, but kept fountain Coke. While its bottled Coke contract was with a supplied in Philadelphia, fountain Coke was bought from the company directly in Atlanta in consortium with a group of other schools including Bryn Mawr and Haverford. This contract was harder to break, but the college agreed to do so in October of that year as the company continued to ignore letters demanding an independent investigation of Coke’s abuses. The college asked for bids on soda products, and ultimately chose Pepsi, which was the cheapest.

Increasingly, however, many members of the community including board members grew unhappy with the decision to cut Coke, not the least of which because the Pepsi contract cost almost twice as much.
In September 2007, reports circulated that the Board of Managers may revisit the issue of Coke on campus. Jed Rakoff ’64, in particular, contested the idea that there was enough evidence to indict Coke of unfair labor practices and others cited financial impracticalities.

However, the decision to end Coke did not come until the Spring of 2009, in the wake of an economic recession that caused the college to lose $400 million dollars from the endowment and
cuts/”>begin discussions on significant budget cuts
. Vice President of Facilities Stuart Hain said that “When we switched, we had conversations with the students and made specific requests of Coke including investigations of human rights violations in Colombia. Because of [Coke’s] work in Colombia over the last couple of years, we decided we would entertain going back to Coke if the pricing was

Hain explained that the initial letter sent to Coke when the college terminated its contract asked them to conduct an independent investigation of labor rights violations. He said that Coke recently allowed an
investigation carried out by the International Labor Organization, which produced a report “mostly favorable” to Coke. According to the report, published here, Coke made progress in its “observance of the fundamental rights at work with regard to not using child labour, equality and non-discrimination, the company has made major efforts to ensure that the terms and conditions laid down … are adhered to.”

“Given the progress Coke had made, we could not ignore them if it could save the college money,” explained Hain. “So it was two pieces—both examination of college’s budget and Coke’s activism in changing their behavior.”

“Given the progress Coke had made, we could not ignore them if it could save the college money.” Stu Hain, Vice President of Facilities

Many former members of Kick Coke and members of SLAP are not convinced that Coke has made much progress. Majandra Rodriguez ’11 admits that “Coca Cola has been pushed towards much higher social responsibility standards in the last few years, and it’s great that they are investing a percentage of their profits towards community-building projects and the like.”

Conversely, though, some labor activists claim that the sort of investigations Kick Coke campaigns were asking for never occurred. While the ILO report examined current working conditions in some Coke plants, Ruth Schultz ’09 says that was not the aim of the Kick Coke campaign.

“What we were pressuring for was an investigation of Coke’s connection with paramilitary groups and the murders of union leaders in Coke’s bottling plants,” she explained. “That investigation has never happened.”

“What we were pressuring for was an investigation of Coke’s connection with paramilitary groups and the murders of union leaders in Coke’s bottling plants. That investigation has never happened.”

In 2001, Sinaltrail (a Colombian labor union) filed a lawsuit in the Miami district court against Coca Cola alleging its involvement in hiring paramilitaries to kill union activists. However, in 2003 that court removed Coca-Cola as defendants because the murders happened outside of the U.S., and were deemed too far removed from the Coca-Cola corporate headquarters in Atlanta.

Rodriguez also holds that as “critical consumers it’s important to know about things such as the [fact that] the Coca-Cola Director of Global Relations [Ed Potter] also has a high position on the ILO (International Labor Organization), the entity which conducted the ‘independent’ investigation into Coke’s Colombia workplace practices.” Potter is the U.S. Employer Delegate to the ILO. A biographical note states that, currently, he serves as the employer spokesperson to the ILO Committee on the Applications of Conventions and Recommendations, “which is charged with holding countries accountable to their obligations that arise from the ratifications of ILO conventions.” Other issues include that the investigation did not include past practices, and that even the ILO report said there were problems in the labor practices of Coke’s hired (but not directly owned) bottlers and concessionaires.

Most activists admit that Pepsi was not necessarily the better option. “But the reality is that Pepsi has not been involved in unquestionably murky issues to the extent Coke has, with the Colombian murder cases or the total depletion of water reserves in rural India,” Rodriguez said.

“We think it’s important that the administration make it clear to Coke that the decision was primarily driven by economic necessity. It makes the school look pretty wishy-washy if the college isn’t clear about its motivations.”

Many supporters of Kick Coke have accepted the decision, albeit with some resignation. Rodriguez believes the decision was taken when it was because “The Kick Coke momentum from some years ago
isn’t there anymore.”

Zoe Bridges-Curry ’09, another Kick Coke supporter during her time on campus, said, “We’re definitely sympathetic to the financial circumstances that the College finds itself in—we understand that during difficult economic times you have to make tough decisions and prioritize based on what’s really critical to the campus community.”

At the same time, Bridges-Curry believed it was misleading to include Coke’s supposed progress as a reason to resume the contract. “We also think it’s important that the administration make it clear to Coke that the decision was primarily driven by economic necessity,” she said. “And we think it’s in the school’s best interest to do so. It makes the school look pretty wishy-washy—and diminishes the college’s future credibility as an ethically intelligent institution—if the college isn’t clear about its motivations.”

One of the responses students consulted about the decision to Coke’s unkicking was to work with the administration, student body, and The Lang Center to create a set of ethical purchasing guidelines. To create a set of guidelines, the Lang Center will hire two interns to conduct research on different aspects of responsible purchasing criteria. Job descriptions will be posted during the week of September 14 to 18 and the Lang Center will expectantly hire these two interns towards the beginning of October. The researchers would complete their work by early next semester so that their findings can be presented to the community and the Board of Managers, where the standards can be finalized and implemented.

Although conducting this sort of research seems like a simple task, Hain said that the issues at hand are extremely complex. “We want to make this research as thorough and exhaustive as possible, looking at both the good and bad,” he said.

However, these future guidelines are not established for the purpose of overhauling the college’s purchases of goods and services. Instead, these standards are established to enable concerned students to bring their opinions to the Administration. “These standards give us a way by which students can bring concerns about products and we have a way to judge these concerns,” Hain explained.

This goal of creating a set of ethical purchasing standards is indeed an ambitious project. While other schools like University of Pennsylvania and Brown University have sweat-free guidelines for college
apparel and other products, Swarthmore plans on creating guidelines that would apply to all goods and services that the College purchases.

Solange Hilfinger-Pardo ’12, a student member of SLAP integral to the project, explains, “The biggest challenge of this whole project is that we haven’t done anything like this before. Researchers will have to look into the issues themselves and they can’t just look at drafts from other schools.”

Despite these upcoming challenges, Hilfinger-Pardo remains optimistic. “I think this is a big win for activism on campus. I think Swarthmore has a reputation for being an activist campus, and this really will attest to that,” Hilfinger-Pardo said.

Other projects labor activists are working on right now is getting the administration and Board of Managers to promise a policy of card-check neutrality for workers in the proposed Swarthmore Inn. As of now, neither the Board nor the administration have a stance on the issue. “There has been subcommittee set up as part of the Committee on Social Responsibility, made up of board members, students, and administration,” Hain said. “But we don’t even have a developer for the project yet, so we aren’t at a place where we feel can talk about [labor rights] issues yet.”

Hain said that the project may be discussed at the upcoming board meeting, where the members may decide if the school is going to begin moving on the project, or whether it will be put aside for the year.

Though Rodriguez was not involved with the Kick Coke campaign, she believes that the campaign was successful. “They were a part of a much larger movement that ended up successfully pressuring Coca
Cola into improving their practices,” she said.

Bridges-Curry agreed, saying, “Kick Coke accomplished its mission locally on Swarthmore’s campus to cut our contract with Coca-Cola and pressure them to do these investigations. In that sense, it is a good example of a campaign that used tactics and strategy to achieve a tangible goal.” She admits, however, that “nationally, the campaign has not succeeded in accomplishing its goals, and the larger mission of Kick Coke has yet to be met.”

“The campaign was an important moment in the trajectory and evolution of activism at Swarthmore.”

Despite the fact that Kick Coke may not have accomplished it’s larger goal, Schultz maintains that there were other reasons, aside from cutting the contract with Coke, that the campaign was important. “We learned to identify power-holders, write press releases, plan effective meetings, and strategically plan actions that led us to meeting a goal. It incited campus debate about free-trade, neoliberalism, and practices of multi-national corporations,” she says. “The campaign was an important moment in the trajectory and evolution of activism at Swarthmore.”

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