Coca-Cola Deal Dumped Amid Labor Abuse Charges
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. At a number of college campuses students want Coca-Cola out. Activists recently convinced the University of Michigan to get rid of its contract with Coke. They charge the company with labor and environmental abuses around the world. Now Coke is gearing up to defend itself as Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.
TRACY SAMILTON reporting:
Students at the University of Michigan who want a Coke can still get it at a store across the street, but they'll find only Pepsi products in university vending machines or cafeterias. That's because the university recently decided there was possible merit to allegations by student groups including union harassment at Coke bottling plants in Columbia and ground water contamination at its plants in India. U of M economist Frank Stafford heads the board that hears complaints about the university's vendors. He said it waded through reams of documents and held an internal trial with Coke representatives and activists on whether to hold Coke responsible for paramilitary violence in Columbia.
FRANK STAFFORD (Economist, University of Michigan): But how could we, just the ground water in India, you know, how do we fly down and confirm that this is true or not?
SAMILTON: Stafford says the students were relentless in their demands to drop Coke, and the process took so much time that most board members eventually resigned. In the end, Coke made the decision a little easier by missing deadlines to set up an independent investigation of murders of Columbian union leaders at Coke bottling plants. Stafford says it shouldn't be this hard. He longs for a credible independent institution that can rate companies' global behavior.
Mr. STAFFORD: I mean my own personal blunt opinion is I do not want corporations shopping for locations where they can operate below what I would regard as good behavior in the United States.
SAMILTON: Coke denies all of the allegations and says it's actually a global leader in ethical business practices. The company has a website Cokefacts.org to rebut activists claims. Coke's director of public relations is from Columbia. Pablo Largacha says the company isn't responsible for that country's long history of paramilitary violence against unions. And he says Coke helped the government start a union protection program that gives union members a number of options to stay safe.
PABLO LARGACHA (Director of Public Relations, Coca-Cola Columbia): Even armored cars and bodyguards for some union leaders who are particularly vulnerable due to their high visibility.
SAMILTON: The activists are going after something far more valuable than a few million-dollar contracts. They're going after Coke's international image. But Largacha says Coke's reputation even improved in a survey of the sixty most prominent companies in the world.
Mr. LARGACHA: And we moved up from number three in last year's survey and rank just behind Johnson and Johnson.
SAMILTON: But students aren't going to Cokefacts.org for information. Many of the groups involve email, and talk directly with activists and union leaders in Columbia and India. Coke claims it's being made a scapegoat for all of globalization's ills. But student activist Lindsey Rogers says it's not a anti-globalization movement.
LINDSEY ROGERS (Student Activist): We take advantage of globalization to speak to the workers and the activists. We couldn't do this campaign if globalization hadn't existed. But we are against just taking advantage of circumstances created by globalization.
SAMILTON: Anti-Coke activists say the company's loss of the U of M contract will be invaluable as they set their sights on other large contracts at the Indiana University system, Michigan State and the University of Minnesota. Coke officials say they will continue to try to address universities' concerns and have not ruled out the idea of independent investigations in an attempt to clear their company's name. For NPR News I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.
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