Students and SLAC consider a Coke boycott
This Tuesday, Oberlin students presented differing opinions on a proposed ban on the sale of Coca-Cola products in the College. The ban would include products such as Odwalla Juice, Taster’s Choice Coffee, Dannon Yogurt, Evian Water, Fruitopia, Minute Maid and Seagram’s, as well as the brand’s flagship soda products.
The call to join the ban is largely the initiative of the Student Labor Action Committee. The campaign began after exiled Columbian labor leader Luis Cordona visited Oberlin earlier this year to ask students to join the ban.
Several campuses across the U.S. have already banned Coca-Cola. The list includes such colleges as Bowdoin, Brandeis, Carleton, Georgetown, Illinois State, Loyola and NYU, as well as schools throughout the world.
The question Oberlin students wrestled with was whether Coca-Cola acted egregiously, whether they are accountable and whether the statement made by a ban would be agreeable and worthwhile. Opinions were varied.
“This is to show workers worldwide that Oberlin College is not going to settle for Coca-Cola’s violence and exploitation,” first-year SLAC member Leah Wagner said. “We are accepting them and telling the world that we are making our own selfish consumerism more important than people’s lives.”
SLAC member Matthew Lippincott presented evidence of what he feels are unacceptable crimes by Coca-Cola. From 1989 to 2001 there were more than nine documented disappearances that many claim are the result of Coca-Cola- funded paramilitaries hired to torture and kill union organizers, forcing some, like Luis Cordona, to flee their homes and never return.
As recently as Sept. 10, 2003, paramilitaries allegedly tied to Coca-Cola kidnapped the 15-year-old son of Limberto Cerranza, a national organizer for a bottling union, by dragging him into a white truck and torturing him to find out the location of his father.
Coca-Cola is being investigated by the Mexican and American government for anti-competitive business practices and has been harshly sanctioned by the Indian government for repeatedly violating local pollution regulations.
Opponents of the ban point to the negative consequences that might result.
“What people don’t understand is that it is not just Coke we’re dealing with,” senior student senator Ronnie Goines said. “You’re talking about my uncle down at the plant with a daughter in school.”
Goines also said that Coca-Cola is the largest employer of African-Americans in the United States and gives away millions to scholarship funds every year.
Many students also questioned the practical repercussions of such a ban. Many questioned if in fact a ban on Coca-Cola would indirectly create a Pepsi monopoly and if Pepsi’s practices are in fact any more ethical.
SLAC members said they did not have information on Pepsi’s practices, but that they should not influence the moral decision to boycott Coca-Cola.
The decision is now in the hands of the Oberlin Purchasing Committee, which has 10 student and faculty members.
“Oberlin was one of the first in the country to define broad conduct rules for purchasing, establishing the precedent that Oberlin was ready to use its purchasing influence for social good,” committee member and politics professor Chris Howell said. “Not only does Oberlin have a purchasing board, but it is a member of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, which is a collection of such boards designed to coordinate such efforts.
College President Nancy Dye said she had not formally received a proposal for the plan and deferred to the purchasing committee.
“It seems that the purchasing committee should get in touch with the Worker’s Rights Consortium and that’s how we should handle it rather than just banning it,” she said. “I believe that the Worker’s Rights Consortium is investigating these charges against Coca-Cola. In any case, we don’t sell many Coca-Cola products on campus. We’re mainly a Pepsi school.”
It is true that vending machines on campus mainly sell Pepsi products. Coca-Cola products are available for sale at the Science Center and DeCafe. However, proponents of the act emphasize that the ban is a symbolic rather than direct financial attack.
While the student body is clearly far from a consensus, the purchasing committee will make its formal recommendation to Dye very soon.
“The Committee can only recommend,” Howell said. “The decision will be made by the President, who will choose to follow our recommendation or not.”