In a closed meeting held last week, the University’s Dispute Review Board found the Coca-Cola Company guilty of two of Coke Coalition’s four allegations: the presence of pesticides in Coke products in India and labor violations in Columbia. In light of the board’s findings, Coke is in direct violation of the University’s Code of Conduct for University Vendors, and the University should immediately terminate its contracts with Coke and only consider renewing them after Coke can prove that it has properly addressed both violations. It currently appears, however, that the DRB will unwisely recommend that the University maintain its contracts until September and then renew them on a month-by-month basis, pending Coke’s efforts to improve its human rights policy. The final decision to renew the contracts, totaling about $1.3 million annually, rests with the University’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, Tim Slottow. It is not too late for Slottow to do what his counterpart at New York University recently failed to do: cancel all 12 contracts with Coca-Cola immediately while offering the possibility of renewal when the violations are rectified.
Six colleges and universities in the United States so far have dropped their contracts with Coke in response to the allegations. This leaves the University with the opportunity to be the first major university to put significant pressure on Coke to promptly address its human rights practices. University students led the way in boycotting Nike in the late 1990s, and the University administration’s pressure on Nike combined with the efforts of students at other schools to create the mountain of negative publicity that ultimately motivated Nike to improve worker conditions. In hopes of regaining the lucrative university contracts and restoring its tarnished reputation, Nike disclosed the locations of its plants and raised wages — sufficient conditions for the University to reinstate its contract. The University administration also played an important role by joining the Workers Rights Consortium and inserting a clause regarding workers wages which incited Nike to temporarily pull out of negotiations. By taking decisive action against Coke, the University could again play a leading role in a nationwide movement; cutting its contracts now would galvanize student activists on campuses across the nation and force Coke to address its practices.
In addition to what will likely be a disappointing outcome, it is unfortunate that the hearings regarding this matter were conducted behind closed doors. While such secrecy may not be a technical violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act, it is unnecessary in a matter that affects the entire student body, and the decision goes against the spirit of openness in such proceedings.
Whether or not the University ultimately holds Coke accountable for its practices, the students driving the Coke Coalition — as well as their predecessors, whose activism resulted in creation of the DRB and the Code of Conduct for University Vendors — should be commended. And the efforts of student activists propelling the anti-Coke movement here and on other campuses have uncovered violations that otherwise would have gone unnoticed and unpunished. The presence of this institution will be a true asset at the University for years to come, giving it a viable mode of resolving conflicts like this one.
The University must act quickly to cancel its contracts with Coca-Cola or risk losing the power to change Coke’s unacceptable treatment of its workers. While complacency with the status quo may be the path of least resistance, issues like these must take precedence over the profitability and convenience of a long-term contract. Like Nike, Coke will only remedy its practices with significant pressure and the fear of a tarnished image, and the University must not delay in sending a clear signal.