Obies meet with Coke execs
Last Friday, three representatives from Oberlin’s Purchasing Committee traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with high-ranking representatives from the Coca-Cola Company, the target of a College-wide boycott enacted this year.
Committe Chair sophomore Sarah Bishop and Committee Research Intern Callum Ingram, as well as their faculty advisor Marc Blecher were among the more than 50 representatives sent to the meeting from colleges across the nation. They met with Ed Potter, Coca-Cola’s newly hired head in charge of international human rights issues. The meeting was organized by UCLA law professor Glen Fischman. Fischman is also associated with the Workers’ Rights Consortium, a body in which Oberlin is an active member.
Blecher characterized the forum participants as “schools that were affiliated with the WRC....The WRC did not formally organize the meeting because Coke has refused to meet with the WRC.”
According to Blecher, the main point of discussion at the meeting, which also dealt with Coca-Cola’s use of water in India, “was Columbia and the intimidation and murders of labor activists, including members of a union that organizes Coke plants, and the extent to which Coke had neglected to prevent the murders.
“Coke has said, ‘We don’t have any responsibility, we didn’t do this, we denounce these crimes.’ The demand is for an independent investigation because Coke’s independent investigation is suspect. You can’t investigate yourself,” Blecher continued. “They said ‘We’ve hired a company to investigate it’ and we said, ‘You can’t hire a company to investigate yourself.’”
Thus, the main demand of the university representatives present at the meeting is that Coke convene a council to discuss an independent investigation of the alleged murder of unionized Coca-Cola employees in Columbia. Company officials promised that within 60 days, an eight to 10-person meeting will be held to discuss the need for an investigation.
“That could be positive, we’ll see how negotiations go,” Blecher said. “We told them they couldn’t dick us around for another year or two, that they couldn’t use this as a stalling tactic. This Ed Potter said ‘we understand, we’ll hold a meeting in about 60 days.’ That was the outcome of the meeting and as far as whether it’s positive or not, I hope so.
“I don’t know if Oberlin will be involved with [the meeting].
The WRC was founded during the first round of the anti-sweatshop movement by students in the United Students Against Sweatshops. The WRC now has grown into an organization with around a hundred members — it’s a clearinghouse for information about human rights abuses in the production of consumer goods. Oberlin’s commitment to WRC principles can best be noted in the school’s Purchasing Committee and the recent Coca-Cola ban. The Committee is composed of students such as Bishop and Ingram as well as faculty and administrators. It recommended the Coca-Cola ban to the school’s administration and the Purchasing Department, in light of the company’s alleged negligence in preventing the intimidation and murder of the workers.
Ingram was “surprised that Coke actually sent someone important to the meeting,” but non-plussed by the seemingly poor planning that the company devoted to the meeting.
“If you want a meeting, don’t invite people two weeks before it occurs and schedule it during a time when many schools have finals,” Ingram said.
He and Bishop both noted that many of the schools represented were from the Washington, D.C. area and thus able to attend the meeting without traveling extensively.
All three of Oberlin’s representatives were very proud of the College’s status as one of only two schools at the meeting (though by no means in the country) that have enacted a ban on Coca-Cola in protest over the company’s unwillingness to allow an independent investigation. Blecher claimed that “I felt really good to be there at the meeting from Oberlin because we are...one of the only colleges boycotting Coke.”
“They asked how we do that and I said, ‘There’s no magic, we just have a president who believes in it,’” he said. “I give [President Nancy Dye] a lot of credit in putting us out in front on this.”
Indeed, Dye’s support has facilitated the realization of the Purchasing Committee’s request that Oberlin cease to buy Coca-Cola products. Bishop commented “it shows you how effective schools with purchasing codes can be in making companies accountable for their decisions.”
The outcome of the meeting remains unclear. Bishop expressed opinion “that big steps will be taken because of how many schools and people are involved.”
“I don’t think that Coke wants to do an investigation, but there’s a huge amount of pressure—boycotts from big schools like the University of California schools,” she added. “The movement is getting so large.”
Blecher agreed with her.
“Potentially it was a step forward — we won’t really know for a little while,” he said. “Coke left saying that the meeting had changed their view of what the problem was and of what the critics wanted.”
When asked about the future of Oberlin’s Coca-Cola ban, he replied, “Oberlin College’s position as articulated by [Dye] in her letter to Coke is, ‘We are boycotting you because you won’t hold an investigation.’ The implication of that is that if they hold an independent investigation, we will stop boycotting Coke. But that is just an implication, she basically takes her cue from the purchasing committee...and we’ll see.”
Oberlin students may be asked to continue to live with the school-wide ban,
perhaps until the Coca-Cola Company conducts an independent investigation of the
murders and intimidation of its Columbian workers and atones for any wrong-doing
uncovered on its part. The ban enables Oberlin to add its voice to the growing
body of schools across the country asking for fair answers from the Coca-Cola