On Dec. 5, 1996, Isidro Gil, a Coca Cola plant worker and a Columbian union leader, was shot and killed inside the entrance of a Coca Cola plant in the city of Carepa by paramilitary forces. After the shooting, other union leaders were kidnapped and tortured, and the local union building was burned. Two days later, paramilitary forces returned to the plant to tell workers they had to quit the union by 4 p.m., or they would be killed. It is said that a Coca Cola manager had prepared resignation forms in advance, and had previously instructed the paramilitaries to destroy the union. A 2001 lawsuit charged that Coca Cola bottlers in Columbia contracted with and directed the paramilitary forces to act as they did.
For many people, Coca Cola products are associated with good taste and cheery advertising, but others worldwide associate the soft drink giant with murder. The “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke” is a worldwide movement that aims to hold Coca Cola accountable for its alleged human rights violations. The campaign has now reached the MSU campus.
According to the “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke” website, Coca Cola has been responsible for numerous human rights and labor violations worldwide. It is claimed that systematic intimidation, kidnapping, torture and murder are occurring at Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia and elsewhere. The website also states that Coca Cola has refused independent investigations into the allegations. Other countries claiming crimes against Coke include Guatemala, China, El Salvador, India, Mexico, Pakistan, The Philippines, and Turkey.
Along with human rights violations, the MSU Killer Coke Campaign recognizes watershed pollution in Michigan as another reason to end contracts with Coca Cola. Residents of Paw Paw, Mich. have filed a lawsuit against Coca Cola for groundwater contamination from a Coca Cola bottling plant located near the watershed. The 80 residents that are part of the lawsuit claim soil contamination has affected their drinking water, daily use of their homes, property taxes and health.
“It is a high quality water body for southwest Michigan,” said Matt Meerson, Van Buren Conservation District watershed coordinator. “It still has a lot of flood plain forests intact; a lot of wetlands, the water quality in general is good for the Paw Paw. Compared to other rivers in southwest Michigan it is in pretty good shape, which is why people are more committee to protecting it.”
The MSU Campaign
In cafeterias and in Sparty’s convenient stores across campus, Coca Cola products are a common sight. Drinks such as Coke, Sprite, Minute Maid Lemonade, A&W Rootbeer, and Nestea are just a few of the Coca Cola products that fill various fountain drink machines. Coca Cola’s time on campus could be limited, however, as the MSU Chapter of Amnesty International leads an initiative to remove Coca Cola from the university.
MSU’s Chapter of Amnesty International has adopted a “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke”, and aims to remove Coca Cola from campus. The campaign is in response to Coke’s alleged human rights violations in Colombia and other places of the world along with environmental problems that have occurred near bottling facilities worldwide and in Michigan. The “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke” is a worldwide movement.
Many students take advantage of the availability of the brand that aims to “refresh the world”, but some students like linguistics and philosophy freshman, Adam Liter, refuse to drink such products. Liter, who hasn’t consumed a Coca Cola product since his sophomore year in high school, has helped lead the campaign at MSU.
Liter, and others involved in Amnesty International have been petitioning on campus since February. So far, they have approximately 120 signatures.
“Some people are not willing [to sign], but a lot of people were interested and definitely wanted to learn more about it,” Liter said. “They stuck around long enough to talk to and they definitely seemed concerned, especially when they learned that Coca Cola has been complicit with murder. It’s not something that people will take lightly.”
The group plans to get at least 5,000 signatures before approaching the administration.
“The administration hasn’t been officially notified,” said Liter. “I have been in contact with them before a little bit because I was trying to figure out what our contract with Coca Cola is like, so they know that there is at least one person out there that is concerned about it.”
“Certainly MSU is a very big client of the Coca Cola Company, because it is such a large university and it has an exclusive contract,” said Ray Rogers, the “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke” director. “You represent two major things for a company: a source of revenue and the most important place in which they build their brand name identity.”
Coca Cola has an exclusive contract with the cafeterias that lasts until 2016, Liter said. The contract with Sparty’s is separate. Liter hopes to persuade the university to break the contract before 2016, or to commit to not renewing it after that time.
“Students are being identified with the Coca Cola Company, and I would suggest that the Coca Cola Company has misrepresented itself to the university when they signed their contract,” Rogers said. “They ought to be able to break that contract, and if not, what we are hoping is that students will believe in justice and that they will make enough clamor on the campus that students simply won’t purchase the products.”
Those involved in the campaign plan to look into possible alternatives to Coca Cola once they have more signatures on the petition.
“Pepsi would be the easiest alternative, but I mean there is still the concern that soda is actually really bad for you,” Liter said. “Ideally we would like to propose a different alternative than Pepsi, but Pepsi is a possibility at this point.”
“And why not promote some Michigan alternatives, like Faygo or Blue Sky,” said international relations junior and MSU Amnesty International secretary, Tabitha Skervin. “There are a lot of local carbonated products I think we could look into as well.”
This is not the first time efforts have been made to end contracts with Coca Cola. MSU Students for Economic Justice tried to persuade the administration to remove Coca Cola from campus in 2006 for similar reasons. The SEJ held protests and a former Coca Cola bottling plant worker from Colombia came to campus to speak out against unethical practices.
“It was near the end of the school year and many of the students involved were graduating,” said Rogers. “There were some efforts to educate the university, but now I know there is a whole new effort.”
The campaign was part of the ongoing national “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke” that Amnesty International is partnered with today.
Adam Liter was involved in a similar “Killer Coke” campaign at his alma mater, Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota.
“He had done some good work and some of the students at the high school told me that Adam is now at MSU, so they hooked me up with him,” said Rogers. “He decided to get things going again, which I was excited about.”
Efforts have also been made at other colleges nationwide, including the University of Michigan. According to The Michigan Daily, Coca Cola was removed from the university in 2005 while allegations of unethical practices were investigated and was then reinstated months later.
“I have great respect for what the students [at UofM] did,” Rogers said. “But I have no respect for what the administration has done; they set a very bad example as to what morality and ethics are about.”
New York University had similar results. Administrators “kicked” Coke off of the campus for a short time, but later reinstated their contracts with Coca Cola.
A complete list of colleges, universities and high schools active in the campaign can be found here.
Liter said he hopes to do a kickoff next semester to raise awareness for the “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke”. Those involved in the campaign hope to work on it throughout the summer, so it is ready to go come fall.
“The hope is that mid fall semester next year we will reach our goal and try to start the dialogue with the administration,” Liter said. “We will be doing some petitioning now until the end of the year and then continue to do petitioning next year until we reach our goal.”
It is also important to know that it is not a requirement to give up your favorite Coca Cola product to join the campaign.
“If I stop drinking Coke, that’s just one person,” Skervin said. “If a school of 47,000 people decided not to drink coke because the administration stops buying it, I think that sends a larger message, and is a more effective boycott.”
The group also hopes to involve other Michigan chapters of Amnesty International in the campaign, as well as environmental groups on campus. They have also gained support from MSU Students for Fair Trade.
“What you are doing is getting a kickback from the Coca Cola Company for their right to have a captive audience, to have a monopoly, to get all kinds of advertising, and to basically put their brand on the forehead of every student that graduates from the campus,” Rogers said.
“MSU would be so huge if the students are successful in getting Coke kicked out of there,” Rogers said. “It would just be a huge victory.”