IU officials debate renewing Coke contract

Students lament alleged labor abuse overseas

IU’s exclusive contract with Coca-Cola expires June 30, and University officials are debating whether renewing it is the most ethical option.

If IU renews the contract, Coca-Cola products will continue to be sold exclusively on campus. If not, IU could choose to enter into an exclusive contract with a different soft drink provider or open it up to non-exclusive contracts with multiple vendors.

Student activists have long protested the agreement, pointing to allegations that Coca-Cola drained groundwater in India and violently conspired against union leaders in Colombia.

“There have been on other campuses, and our campus also, questions raised about Coca-Cola practices overseas,” said Dean of Students Dick McKaig, chair of the Anti-Sweatshop Advisory Committee. “Coca-Cola has responded with information as to their understanding of the situation and efforts they have taken.”

In response to the Colombia allegations, Coca-Cola issued a statement in 2006 saying that the employees of the corporation’s bottlers enjoy a union-friendly environment. It said that only 4 percent of workers in Colombia are unionized, but 31 percent of bottler employees of Coca-Cola in the country are members of unions.

“Over the past several decades, Colombia has experienced much internal conflict, which affects trade union leaders and other people from all walks of life,” the statement said. “Despite the volatile environment, The Coca-Cola

Company and its bottlers have maintained operations and have worked to provide safe, stable economic opportunities for the people of Colombia.”
The company also issued a statement saying that its practices in India are environmentally friendly and legal.

Several universities canceled their contracts with Coca-Cola after the allegations became public, including two Big Ten universities: the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan.

Some students, such as senior Cole Wehrle, a member of an on-campus group dedicated to advancing labor rights issues called No Sweat!, pressured IU’s administration to cancel its contract through petitions and protests.

Now that the contract is almost up, Wehrle, who is also a member of the Anti-Sweatshop Advisory Committee, has shifted his attention toward either convincing Coca-Cola to change what he says are unethical labor practices or convincing administrators not to renew the contract.

“I think the best solution would be to have Coke reform its overseas practices and not have to lose the contract,” Wehrle said.

Wehrle has hope that things will change – he said that every time the company has lost a contract over the allegations, it has made a step toward ethical compliance.
After the University of Michigan canceled its contract in 2006, Coca-Cola agreed to a third-party investigation by the International Labour Organization.

Wehrle has worked to solicit student opinion about the issue in the past, collecting signatures for petitions. While some students are concerned about the accusations and others don’t care, the contract itself is often more of an issue than the question of labor practices.

“It seemed more appalling that we had an exclusive contract than the contract with Coke,” Wehrle said.

McKaig said the committee has been researching Coca-Cola’s labor practices by studying outside sources, such as written documents from the International
Labour Organization and presentations from concerned students, and is planning to have a representative from the company attend one of its meetings this month to answer questions.

The 12-person Anti-Sweatshop Advisory Committee was originally formed to make sure companies who wanted to use IU’s logo followed ethical labor practices.

McKaig said the committee first started studying the Coca-Cola issue a few years ago, which is unique because it deals with purchasing instead of licensing.

McKaig said he expects the committee to have a recommendation to pass on to IU President Michael McRobbie within 60 days.

The administration should decide whether to continue with the contract within the next few months, said Terry Clapacs, IU vice president and chief administrative officer. He said University officials need to continue to research and wait for a proposal from Coca-Cola and evaluate it.

“A lot has been said about Coca-Cola over the last couple years,” Clapacs said, “and it’s our responsibility to find out what’s fact and what’s not.”

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