Coke spat may touch campus

The University of Michigan ended a boycott of Coca-Cola products on Tuesday, after the company agreed to an investigation into its alleged international labor abuses — the latest development in a nationwide campaign that has recently bypassed Yale.

Activists’ opinions differed as to whether the end of UM’s four-month standoff with Coke signaled victory or defeat. But with more than two dozen universities now maintaining active boycotts, they said, Yale has been sidelined in a movement that it helped advance two years ago. Several campus groups plan to change the situation this fall, when they will begin a concerted campaign to terminate the University’s current contract with the company.

Christopher Rhie ’07, a coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops, said his group will shift away from its five-year effort to regulate the production of Yale apparel and instead focus on the accelerating anti-Coke campaign.

“We would have loved to get involved with this earlier,” Rhie said. “This is something that has come to the foreground among international labor rights groups, and I find it very exciting that we will be a part of it.”

A UM spokeswoman said the school chose to end its boycott after Coca-Cola agreed to invite the United Nations International Labour Organization to investigate its operations in Colombia and India. But Ray Rogers, director of the global Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, accused the university of backing down and said his organization will protest the decision.

Rogers and activists at the University said Yale played a brief but important role in the movement in April 2004, when students protested a visit by Douglas Daft, then chief executive officer of Coca-Cola. As Daft gave a speech about corporate ethics, the students smeared their shirts with fake blood and posed as if dead to symbolize the alleged murder of union members in Colombia.

The image of Daft surrounded by prone students received national media coverage and helped mobilize popular opinion against him, Rogers said. Daft stepped down from his position later that year.

“That photo will go down in history,” Rogers said. “It was one of the events that led him to resign early.”

Yale’s involvement in the campaign dropped off immediately, activists said, as the academic year was nearly over and campus groups were already invested in other labor issues. But elsewhere, the nationwide movement has since grown exponentially, and University officials said they have been bracing for a resurgent campaign on campus that never arrived.

Still, Associate Vice President for Financial and Administrative Services Ernst Huff said Yale will scrutinize its five-year contract with Coke when it is up for renewal in August 2007.

“[Recent reports of the boycotts] broke two or three months ago in the press, and we were sort of expecting it to be more of an issue here than it’s been,” Huff said. “There will certainly be more people on campus we will want to consult.”

Rhie said the planned student campaign will focus both on ending Yale’s contract with Coke — which stipulates that the University’s dining halls serve exclusively Coke-produced beverages — and educating the community on the company’s record. Since Yale last renewed its contract through a competitive bid, a decision to exclude the company could increase dining expenses, Huff said.

Phoebe Rounds ’07, a coordinator of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, said Yalies often take a backseat in national activist movements because they have better opportunities to score local labor victories.

“We’re in a city with a great labor movement on the ground that often goes out and supports other people,” Rounds said. “It’s a lot more difficult to have that kind of power when you’re a student at a university taking on a much less localized business agreement.”

Rounds and other activists said the anti-Coke movement will prove victorious if UM’s agreement with the company inspires more boycotts. But Rogers said the United Nations International Labour Organization has considerable financial and personal ties to Coca-Cola, so he doubts that the investigation will be legitimately independent.

Though Coke has exclusive rights to the fountain soda dispensers in the dining halls, Huff said, PepsiCo products have an even greater presence on throughout campus, due to the company’s contract for vending machine beverages and snack products.

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