STUDENTS AGAINST SWEATSHOPS UNIVERSITY OF IOWA
Deadline for Ethical Purchasing Code Approaching with No Word from UI; Students Against Sweatshops Meeting to Consider Options for Action
March 20, 2005
Iowa City, IA-Despite facing a deadline set by UI Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) to draft an Ethical Purchasing Code of Conduct by March 21, the University of Iowa appears content with the status quo. Over a month ago, SAS delivered Valentines calling for an Ethical Purchasing Code to UI President David Skorton and to each member of the Purchasing Advisory Committee. With no official response from the UI, and with the deadline looming, SAS has called an emergency meeting on Monday night to discuss the options for escalated action.
"One month was more than enough time for the UI to do the right thing," said UI undergraduate and SAS member Emily Schrepf. "Worse, they did next to nothing. It's high time SAS considers what it can do to speed this process up and ensure that our University has a responsible human rights policy."
At the heart of the problem is the fact that the UI has no leverage to call to account any of its non-licensee corporate partners that abuse human rights. What SAS is asking for is a logical extension of the UI's existing Licensees' Code of Conduct to all of the University's purchasing relationships. This impressive code simply mandates that licensees adhere to basic human rights standards in order to maintain their contracts. The Code is available to the public on the University website at http://www.uiowa.edu/productlicenses/code.html. An Ethical Purchasing Code of Conduct would likely regulate over $400 million of contracts per annum.
"The University of Michigan already has a comprehensive code of conduct for its vendors," said Julia Slocum, SAS member and undergraduate student. "Let's join them in our collective responsibility as institutions of higher education and set a model for respecting human rights in our actions as well as our words."
One major focus of the SAS campaign for an Ethical Purchasing Code of Conduct is the UI's partnership with the Coca-Cola Company, a known human rights abuser. Echoing a growing nationwide chorus against Coke on college campuses, UI Students Against Sweatshops has pressed the administration to act for over two years. Other campuses across Iowa and the nation have also witnessed student revolts against exclusive contracts between Coca-Cola and their universities. Recently, Iowa State University dumped Coke to ink a contract with Pepsi-Cola. At Grinnell College, within two days of a campaign kick-off, one third of the student body had signed an official petition calling for a Coke boycott. Next to each product dispenser the College placed a sign which reads, "The Grinnell College student body has voted to boycott Coca-Cola products. This is a Coca-Cola product." The University of Northern Iowa, meanwhile, chose earlier to sign a contract with Pepsi over Coke. Six other coll eges, including Bard, Oberlin, and Carleton, have cancelled Coke contracts. Michigan, NYU, Montana, Macalester, UMass, and many other institutions are also under pressure to end their relationship with Coca-Cola.
SAS at the University of Iowa is not necessarily calling for booting Coke off campus, but rather having the UI insist that Coke not abuse human rights in order to achieve its profits. An Ethical Purchasing Code of Conduct would give the UI the leverage to make this possible.
"We receive hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from Coke so it can call itself the 'Official Soft Drink of the Iowa Hawkeyes,'" said SAS member and undergraduate student Alexis Bushnell. "Isn't it the least we can do to ensure that this partnership reflects the principles of this University?"
SAS is aware that its actions-including the protest involving the ballooning of the Pentacrest in January-forced the UI to form the Purchasing Advisory Committee, but is upset that they were not invited to join the process of studying a possible Ethical Purchasing Code of Conduct. SAS does plan to honor the Committee's invitation to present the case for a Code at its next meeting, to be held March 28. However, with no power to issue a binding recommendation to President Skorton, and charged only with meeting quarterly, SAS argues that the Committee, as it is currently structured, is more an obstacle than an instrument of progress.
"What we want to do more than anything else is work with the administration to create an effective human rights policy which reflects the enlightened principles of this great University," said Alan Schultz, UI graduate student and SAS member. "But when things move too slowly, we have to speak up. People's human rights are being violated in our name every day. We need the leverage an Ethical Purchasing Code provides, and we need it now."
Faced with similar recalcitrance in 2000, Students Against Sweatshops mobilized the campus community to convince the UI to enact the Licensees' Code of Conduct and to join a factory monitoring organization. However, these gains were not won until after SAS had lobbied committees for many months without success, and were forced to turn to a series of escalated actions ending with a weeklong occupation of Jessup Hall.
Regarding Coca-Cola, most damning is the charge that Coke is complicit in the brutal murder of eight union workers from its bottling plants in Colombia. In a lawsuit filed by the respected International Labor Rights Fund, Coca-Cola has been accused of looking the other way when plant managers in Colombia support paramilitaries in order to destroy unions with extreme violence, including torture and murder, against labor leaders. In addition to the allegations from Colombia, SAS has consistently pointed out other areas in which Coke's human rights record is deeply suspect. Late last year, Human Rights Watch released a report revealing that Coke buys sugar from El Salvadoran plantations that employ child labor. Communities in India which have protested that Coke steals their clean groundwater and then pollutes it with toxic chemicals from bottling run-off have been silenced with violence and repressive arrests. African activists have noted that while Coke is the largest private emplo yer on the continent, and recorded record profits in recent years, it provides AIDS medication to a grossly inadequate percentage of its employees suffering from the disease. Despite this dismal record, last year the UI renewed its contract with Coca-Cola to run through 2008.
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