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Thirst for Answers

By Edward Burkhalter
Issue: 1/12/06
The Chanticleer (Jacksonville State University)
Original Article by Subscription

The whole country is divided into red and blue. Some believe your place of birth or the way in which you were raised determines which primary color you'll be. Some say it's just a question of taste, plain and simple. What both can agree on is that red is taking heat on college campuses across the country.

This month, the University of Michigan banned red from its campus. No, they didn't forcibly remove all the Bush voters; we're talking about the other red, Coca-Cola.

In a press release by the University of Michigan's Coalition to Cut the Contract with Coca-Cola, a student-run activist group, they state that after more than a year of student campaigning, the University of Michigan has temporarily suspended University purchasing of Coca-Cola products effective January 1, 2006.

They claim that Coke is unwilling to cooperate with a third party review of alleged human rights violations in Asia and South America. Violations they believe led to the deaths of ten union leaders in Columbia.

They aren't alone. Nine other campuses did the same, and gave big red the boot. The largest of these is New York University, with more than 50,000 students.

Coca-Cola cries fowl. In an official press release, Coke says the allegations against their business in Columbia are false. It states that, " A workplace assessment conducted in Columbia by Cal Safety Compliance Corporation, a respected, independent third-party found no instance of anti-union violence or intimidation at bottling plants."

No matter, this is the South. Coke is king, right? In a recent unscientific survey of twenty-five random students, half said they use the Coke machines on campus three to six times a week.

Our university holds an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola.

When asked what drink they'd like to see added to the existing selection, Mountain Dew, a Pepsi product, was the most common answer. So let's all just sign a petition, make some banners and order up some Pepsi machines, right? Maybe not.

In yet another unscientific survey of JSU students, ten out of ten hadn't heard of the allegations against Coke. Even after learning of them, not one said they'd be willing to give up "Big Red."

" I don't think my buying habits affect a multi-billion dollar company, so I wouldn't change them," said Graduate student Clarence Blalock.

Coke says the same thing. In the Los Angeles Times, a Coke spokeswoman is quoted as saying, "It is very unfortunate. The actual volume in terms of sales is small but it is the larger issue of our reputation."

So we all seem to agree that nothing we can do will make a difference.

Don't tell that to the folks at the Coalition of Immokalee workers. In March of 2005, their boycott of Taco Bell ended when the company accepted demands for a penny a pound increase in the price they pay for tomatoes, according to a Coalition press release. While a penny a pound doesn't seem like much, the increase will nearly double the yearly wage of the Florida farm workers.

But the Coalition didn't do it alone. It was the "Boot the Bell" campaign that began in 2001 and spread across college and high school campuses alike that gave the coalition the push it needed.

But what about the independent third-party assessment by Cal Safety. Coke said they found no instance of anti-union violence in it's bottling plants.

According to a 1997 report by Clark University sociology professor titled No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers, "On August 2, 1995, a multi-agency task force led by the California Department Industrial Relations raided a fenced seven-unit apartment complex in El Monte, California.

What they found was one of the most horrendous U.S. sweatshops in modern times....The workers, most of them women, had been held in virtual slavery behind fences tipped with razor wire and forced to sew garments in conditions significantly worse than those found in most sweatshops."

Cal Safety was the registered monitor for the front shop, D&R.

In a statement taken from attorney Julie A. Su during the May 18, 1998 hearing before the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, she states, " The failure of Cal safety to find abuses in this case is one of the most widely cited examples of the shortcomings of the private monitoring industry."

Clara Hardie, a member of the University of Michigan's Coalition to Cut the Contract with Coca-Cola, says that Coke has "asked all parties involved in the Miami court case (against Coke) to sign an inadmissibility agreement (that no evidence found in the independent audit will be used against them in the court). "This move alone proves they are guilty of something," Clara states.

Coca-Cola denies any wrongdoing, and in its press release says, "The Coca-Cola Company and our bottlers have investigated the claims regarding human rights abuses in Columbia and found no evidence to support them. We will continue to work to ensure that our company and our bottling partners operate under the highest standards in Columbia."

Red or Blue, guilty or not, it seems that college students are taking an interest in the world outside their own campuses. And it's a big world out there.

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