NYU campaign to kick out Coke...again

May 3, 2010

Jason Farbman and Blair Ellis report on a new struggle against a multinational giant.

NEW YORK--In 2005, years of student organizing paid off when New York University (NYU) became the twelfth college in the U.S. to ban Coca-Cola from its campus. But after a 2009 decision by the administration to reinstate Coke, a new coalition has emerged that could make NYU the first campus to ban Coke twice.

The campaign to kick Coke off campus--for a second time--was kicked off on June 20 when some 400 students and members of the community made it through the rain to attend the first event of the NYU Coalition to Keep Coca-Cola Off Campus, a showing of Canadian film The Coca-Cola Case. The film was followed by a panel discussion that included the movie's co-director, Colombian union activists and lawyers, anti-Coke activists, and student organizers of the new campaign.

During the event, ample evidence was presented to explain why 50 campuses have kicked out Coke so far. Regions of India have seen the destruction of their water and soil when both draught and famine followed closely behind Coke bottling plants.

Non-union truck drivers in Colombia, who work 15-hour days, would have to work two years to earn what Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell takes home in an hour. And if ever a truck is hijacked or damaged, or if even a single bottle goes unaccounted for, the cost is docked from the driver's wages.

Should workers ever decide to unionize and fight for a slight increase in pay or better working conditions, they'll think twice after the campaigns of terror waged by paramilitary forces directed solely at workplace organizers and activists over decades.

According to KillerCoke.org, "Hundreds of other Coke workers have been tortured, kidnapped and/or illegally detained by violent paramilitaries, often working closely with plant managements." The site identifies at least eight union leaders at Coke plants in Colombia who have been murdered.

The original NYU ban, in fact, was on the basis of Coca-Cola's refusal to allow an independent investigation into the assassinations of eight unionists working at bottling plants in Colombia.

The film The Coca-Cola Case takes place over several years, depicting the attempt of U.S. lawyers working with Columbian SINALTRAINAL union members and leaders to build the case against Coca-Cola.

Eyewitness accounts of union members being shot in the back of trucks are juxtaposed with a press conference in which Coke CEO Neville Isdell bluntly ignores accusations about his corporation's involvement in these acts of terrorism. Later, Isdell shrugs off a question about the enormous amount of money he took home in bonuses, which dwarfed the amount finally offered as reparations to Columbian workers and their families for their losses after the murders.

Eventually, Coca-Cola offers to settle for millions of dollars, but refuses to admit involvement in the murders and offers even more if the union leaders will leave SINALTRAINAL and disappear. The plaintiffs spend little time deliberating before refusing the deal.

COKE'S REINSTATEMENT at NYU came against the wishes of a majority of students, as expressed at two separate forums. In a public letter to the administration, anti-Coke organizer Jeff Olshansky wrote, "NYU made a promise to these Colombian workers and they broke that promise...NYU decided to put their financial relationship with Coke above human rights."

The letter continued by highlighting several economic relationships between Coca-Cola and New York University: "Administrators have stated that Coke has withheld a considerable amount of money from the athletics department in response to the ban...Coke's name is printed on multiple NYU buildings...Barry Diller, a board member for Coca-Cola, is a member of NYU's Board of Trustees."

Diller was invited to the premiere of The Coca-Cola Case by e-mail, telephone and a hand-delivered letter to his office, but he was conspicuously absent at the event's opening, when his name was called several times to see if he was in attendance.

During the panel discussion, freshman Elizabeth Gyori told the audience that the Coke ban was the reason she decided to come to NYU. She had first heard about the ban when she was in eighth grade, learned about the myriad human rights violations attributed to Coca-Cola and was inspired to give up their products immediately.

An organizer with the original campaign to ban Coke, Erin Kiskeny, spoke bitterly of the resistance put up by the administration. Had NYU wanted to remove Coke products from campus, she recalled, the administration wasn't under an exclusive contract--it could simply have asked food service contractor Aramark to switch.

Instead, activists had to wage a three-and-a-half year campaign to win--and then only to see it reversed when, the university apparently hoped, the student activists had graduated and moved on.

Although many organizers are law students and the film shown was largely about legal strategies and negotiating with Coca-Cola, the lessons of such a recent campaign have led to the adoption of a more bottom-up activist approach. As organizer Sara Cullinane put it:

To be clear, none of us are working on legal campaigns. We are obviously interested in the legal issues, but see our power as students. We are stakeholders as students and have built a broad-based coalition with many others within NYU, as well as in the Colombian community in New York. The way we're going to get action from NYU is by uniting as students.

Coca-Cola Case co-director Germán Gutiérrez seemed to agree with Cullinane about the complimentary roles of legal strategies and grassroots struggle.

"One of the reasons Atlanta [the corporate headquarters for Coca-Cola] called the union members to the table, put millions of dollars on the table, is because of the student movements and campaigns against Coke," Gutiérrez said. "It is very easy sometimes to become cynical and say, 'Coke is too big, we're just 20 students on campus.' But these campaigns prove just the opposite."

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