Like any other rule, the University’s Vendor Code of Conduct is only as powerful as the will to enforce it. Instituted in 2004 because of concerns about University vendors’ labor practices, the Code of Conduct established a Dispute Review Board that has acted on allegations of unethical actions by the Coca-Cola Company. On Dec. 29, the University suspended its 13 contracts with Coca-Cola, citing Coke’s failure to comply with a deadline the DRB set toward a third-party investigation of its labor and environmental practices in Columbia and India. This action is not only a first step to remedying Coke’s violations, but it also demonstrates that the University is serious about its commitment to human rights and will not hesitate in holding offenders accountable.
Since the DRB found two of the allegations student activists brought against Coke to be valid last summer, the University’s hesitation to take firm action has stalled efforts to fully investigate and correct Coke’s abuses. Administrators argued that Coke was acting in good faith, excusing its reluctance to start an independent investigation into the DRB’s findings. But after Coke announced it would fail to meet a second deadline on Dec. 31 to agree on an independent investigator to look into its abuses, even that weak argument fell apart.
Coca-Cola’s actions have so far been suspect at best. If it has done nothing wrong, as it claims, it should be eager to clear its name via a thorough investigation of its practices. Its concerns that a investigation’s findings could be used against it in pending lawsuits regarding these allegations hint that Coke has something to hide.
As the anti-Coke movement gathers momentum across the country, Coca-Cola may soon have to justify its practices to more than a few impassioned students. The University has now followed New York University to become the second major university in the country to suspend its Coke contracts. Now that the national spotlight is on, the University must not back off from its position.
In a letter to Coca-Cola, University Chief Financial Officer Timothy Slottow wrote that if Coke agrees on terms for an independent, third-party investigation, the University will reinstate the suspended contracts. But even if Coke complies with these conditions, it will still remain in violation of the Vendor Code of Conduct, and the University has no place doing business while its labor violations in Colombia and India remain uncorrected.
For months, the University’s inaction spoke louder than its reputation as an institution dedicated to social justice and the humane treatment of workers. The students involved in bringing this issue to the forefront and pressuring the University have been instrumental in forcing the University to stand behind its Vendor Code of Conduct and hold Coca-Cola accountable. As proven in the fight to improve Nike’s treatment of its workers in the ’90s, colleges can be a key starting point to ensure corporations respect their workers’ rights. Without the loud voices of the anti-Coke coalition, Coke’s violations would have remained hidden from most on campus, and there would be little chance that Coca-Cola would correct its practices abroad.