Ever since the University reinstated its purchasing contract with Coca-Cola in April, the once-contentious debate over the soda giant’s labor practices has been remarkably quiet.
At a student-organized forum last week, the issue bubbled up once more.
It doesn’t appear likely, though, that Coke products will disappear from campus again anytime soon.
Facing pressure from campus activists last year, the University cut its contracts with Coke. The University was one of 19 school that stopped buying Coke products in response to alleged human rights violations.
Four months later, the University resumed business with Coke upon the recommendations of the Dispute Review Board, the advisory board responsible for hearing complaints against the Vendor Code of Conduct. The code of conduct outlines labor and environmental standards that vendors who do business with the University must abide by. The University reinstated its contracts after Coca-Cola agreed to two ongoing independent investigations looking into alleged incidents in Colombia and India.
Campus activists took the opportunity of the forum to question the University’s decision to resume buying Coke products.
The decision to reinstate the contract came before the promised investigations were complete, said Blase Kearney, a member of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality.
“Coke never submitted the results of their investigation to the University because they never had a reason to,” Kearney said. “They got their contracts reinstated.”
The Coke debate is still raging across the country. Last month, Swarthmore College cut its contracts with Coke amid allegations of human rights abuses.
Rackham student Sayan Bhattacharyya, who hosted the forum in Mason Hall last week, used the Coke issue to illustrate the University’s complex role as a global citizen at a forum he hosted last week in Mason Hall. A panel made up of three students, two professors, one of the University’s lawyers and Bhattacharyya spoke to an audience of about 20 people.
“My hope for this forum is to explore how the University sees itself as a part of the global community,” Bhattacharyya said. “The events surrounding the University’s relationship with the Coca-Cola Corporation provide concrete examples of how the University’s influence is relevant on a global scale.”
Organizational Studies junior Lindsey Rogers, a member of the University’s chapter of human-rights advocacy group Amnesty International, said a University education would be incomplete without teaching ethics.
She said she recognizes that the priority of the University is the quest for knowledge. “But knowledge can be used for good or evil,” Rogers said.
She praised the University for its code of vendor ethics. But Rogers said the University should have permanently suspended its contracts with Coke rather than give the company a timeline to change its policies.
“By reinstating the contract, the University legitimized the Coca-Cola Corporation,” Rogers said. “The University failed in its duty to act as a responsible global citizen.”
University alum Elizabeth Cowan recalled her conversations with union workers from Columbia last year. She explained the stigma that union workers in South America endure and stressed their reliance on outside support to rectify their dire situation.
“The workers were terribly disappointed when the University reinstated its contracts,” she said.
Cowan said that because we live in an interconnected society, we have the responsibility to raise the standard of living for the workers in Columbia.
Business School Prof. Andrew Hoffman said he supports the University’s plan. He said the University should not punish Coke by severing all ties with the company. Instead, the University can more effectively change the company’s business practices by working alongside it.
“The University has every right to envision a better world and choose to make it so,” Hoffman said. “We need to not only show what’s wrong, however. We also need to show the way towards what’s right.”
LSA junior Ryan Fantuzzi, an outspoken campus conservative, argued that the ban on Coke hurt Michigan workers.
“The only people punished were the local bottlers,” Fantuzzi said. “The ban hardly helped the people in Columbia.”
Fantuzzi said the University should first channel its efforts into helping American citizens. He said global welfare should come second to Americans’ well-being.
Last winter, Fantuzzi formed a party to run in Michigan Student Assembly elections that focused on getting the University to reinstate its contract with Coke. His party lost by a devastating margin, and the party folded.