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The real mission of Students Against Sweatshops

Daily Iowan — Opinions
Issue: 2/1/05

The recent "Balloons on Parade" protest action by members of UI Students Against Sweatshops was intended to draw attention to the existence of our campaign for an Ethical Purchasing Code of Conduct. A common misconception is that our organization wants the university to drop Coca-Cola completely. It is not the aim of Students Against Sweatshops to remove Coca-Cola from the campus, but rather to establish a means by which the UI can leverage students' inevitable consumption of such products against further human-rights abuses by Coke and other contractual partners. We want to say, Clean up your act, or else. After all, there's always Pepsi.

It is important to note that we chose this mild act of civil disobedience only after several years of lobbying past, interim, and current UI presidents in person, writing letters, getting editorials published, bringing in guest speakers, establishing information tables in the IMU, handing out fliers, and more - all with negligible results. Our attempts at rational discourse with the administration have been met by nothing more than public-relations control tactics. The current task force commissioned to stall - oops, I mean study - the issue is just the latest example. Hence our use of civilly disobedient red and white balloons, placed knowingly in violation of university policy, with a promise of removal at the end of a day in a letter to the university president, dean of students, and director of campus grounds.

On this matter, despite the DI's tacky Jan. 26 editorial, we agree with the university's reprimand of our organization. We chose to violate policy to highlight how the university doesn't adhere to what we think are the much more crucial, ethical laws of human rights. Our continued disappointment with the administration stems from its putting more emphasis on immediately scolding us while, to this date, still failing to act in any meaningful way on the issue at hand.

The celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Week seemed the perfect time to forward this issue and show our support for King's belief that "he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it." As the son of two embattled preachers myself, I should think King would have been proud of our mild, yet effective act of civil disobedience to further this important issue.

A prime example of the need for an ethical purchasing code is the UI's exclusive contract with Coca-Cola, which makes it complicit in egregious and well-documented human-rights and environmental abuses around the world. A recent letter to the editor, and more formidably, Coca-Cola itself, have questioned the authenticity of these claims. Allow me to clarify.

The existence of numerous abuses has been recognized by well-respected nongovernmental organizations around the world. In the summer of 2004, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the use of child labor on plantations in El Salvador that supply sugar used in Coca-Cola products. Yet, while claiming to maintain a strict no-child-labor clause, Coca-Cola has refused to take action on these documented abuses. In India, Coca-Cola continues to contaminate public groundwater and soil while selling drinks containing toxic levels of pesticides. This has been documented by the Center for Science and Environment based in New Delhi, India, which found levels of chemicals such as DDT and Malathion, which were 30 times higher than those allowed by the standards of the European Union. Finally, numerous alleged instances of intimidation, firings, and murders of union organizers at Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia have sparked an ongoing lawsuit by the International Labor Rights Fun d and the United Steelworkers of America.

I am optimistic that the rest of the administration will catch up with the UI Office of Finance and Operations current knowledge of problems with Coca-Cola and move from studying the issue to action. This department's own assistant vice president for business services, Mary Jane Beach, admitted knowledge of the company's abuses when she was quoted recently in the DI saying, "We didn't know any of the problems at the time of the signing." Never mind that Students Against Sweatshops informed the university of Coca-Cola's dismal human-rights "problems" well in advance of the May 2003 signing.

To join us in our fight to hold companies the university does business with accountable when they abuse human rights, or to simply find out more, please visit our website at and sign the petition, or come to a meeting Thursdays at 7 p.m. in 255 IMU.

Alan Schultz
UI graduate student on behalf of Students Against Sweatshops

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