Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Is Coke The New Nike?

There are plenty of reasons to hate Coca-Cola, but I have always preferred it to other soft drinks, and I am a brand-loyalty guy. If I like a company or its products, I generally buy only those products. When a restaurant offers me Pepsi instead of Coke, I ask for water. I just don't buy Pepsi. I'm a Coke guy.

I have always assumed that soft drink corporations are not good neighbors, or good employers, or shining testaments to the potential beneficence of capitalism. I assume thy are all scum. Coke being no worse than any of the others.

Then I read Michael Blanding's article at thenation.com about Coke's human rights track record at its bottling facilities outside the United States.

Corporate apologists inside and outside Coca-Cola deny all the charges, of course; but I have never believed that labor movements fabricated stories about human rights abuses by Nike or Nestle, and I have no reason to believe that human rights organizations and labor leaders have fabricated stories about Coke's practices in developing economies.

According to Blanding's article, at an event at Smith College,
"Javier Correa, president of the Colombian union SINALTRAINAL, ... spoke of a decade of violence that has resulted in the deaths of eight workers. . . . [H]e told the story of Isidro Gil, who was shot dead in 1996 at the bottling plant; a week later, paramilitaries entered the plant and forced workers to sign letters of resignation from the union at gunpoint. Coca-Cola directly controls the bottling facilities through their contracts, said Correa, who says he has himself escaped three assassination attempts."

I know that American businessmen are not in Columbia holding guns to the heads of workers; but Coke controls the contracts and can easily intervene when human rights abuses are exposed. Sadly, the success of the Nike method of denying any knowledge of, or even the existence of human rights abuses is the most profitable tactic, so Coke is using it. They simply have some woman in a suit (Coke's issues director, Lori George Billingsley, in this case) make a statement denying the accuracy of the reports, and effectively dismiss any actions or boycotts planned against the company by denying there is a problem.

I see how a corporation might have trouble keeping a watchful eye on every remote locations in their operation. I imagine there are abuses in every corporation at every location. What is despicable about Coca-Cola's current problems is their tactic of total denial and refusal to take action or investigate. Like Nike in the 1990s, they are simply denying there is a problem and hoping those who oppose their practices will be silenced in the media, and simple go away. They are using their wealth not to make the world (and their company) better, but to make the world a worse place for disenfranchised people just trying to make a living by working in their bottling plants. This is not successful capitalism, this is not the American ideal -- it is an embarrassment to humanity.

I haven't yet decided to boycott Coca-Cola products. I want to see what happens next and get more information about their plans. Coke, however, will no longer have carte blanche in my grocery basket. I will now purchase what is on sale, or what is cheapest. Until Coke fixes these problems, until they start promoting human rights at their plants everywhere in the world, they cannot have my loyalty.

I applaud Carleton, Oberlin, Bard, New York University, Rutgers, and University of Michigan for considering a boycott of Coke and cancellation of their contracts, and I hope other college campuses in America join in the campaign. Boycott is the most effective tactic for forcing corporate change. Action by consumers works.

Please consider taking action.

You can contact United Students Against Sweatshops for information.

Read Blanding's article at The Nation.

Dick Mac Recommends:

Powaqqatsi - Life in Transformation
Godfrey Reggio

No comments: