Life has gotten more complicated for New York University students used to grabbing a cold Coke or a can of Tab to power them through a grim term paper or snooze-worthy lecture. On Dec. 8, following a protracted student campaign, the University Senate suspended sales of Coca-Cola (KO) products on campus. At issue was an agreement between the company and NYU regarding an independent investigation of alleged human-rights violations in Coke's Colombian bottling plants. By mid-January, as students returned from their winter vacations, nearly all of the school's 86 Coca-Cola vending machines had been wheeled away.
How did a handful of students get a university of more than 50,000 to ban such a popular product? The short answer, says Dave Hancock, is two years of lobbying student organizations and university governance groups. Hancock, a junior in NYU's Gallatin School of Independent Study, is a leader of the school's campaign against Coke.
NYU's "Campaign to Kick Coke" (CKC) began in August, 2003, when New York-based activist coalition Committee for Social Justice in Colombia held a teach-in, publicizing what it viewed as the struggles of Coca-Cola's bottling employees in Colombia. The meeting inspired a group of around eight NYU students, including Hancock, to take up the cause.
WORK THROUGH CHANNELS. Hancock says the NYU campaign is really about the beverage giant agreeing to an independent, third-party investigation of its Colombia operations. "We're not willing to say that Coca-Cola is implicated in the murder of one, two, three, or eight union leaders. We're just going to say that, as a university committed to social responsibility and workers rights, [Coca-Cola has] not succeeded in addressing these very serious issues," he says.
In early 2004, CKC met with NYU administrators who oversee corporate relations in the school's dormitories and dining halls. They told the group it needed to work through student government channels, recalls Hancock. CKC sent a proposal to the NYU Student Senators Council -- an elected body responsible for representing and addressing student concerns at the school -- calling for an independent investigation into Coke's practices in Colombia.
That summer, Coca-Cola declined to meet with concerned students from several universities. "At the time, we thought individual meetings [with individual schools] would be more helpful, because we could have more in-depth discussions," explains Coca-Cola spokesperson Kari Bjorhus.
KEEP TALKING. In response, CKC members stepped up their demands, calling for an immediate ban of Coke products unless the company agreed to a third-party investigation. During the fall, CKC members talked up student senators and collected more than 1,500 student signatures on a petition, which was adopted as a formal proposal by the senate's student-life committee. In November, 2004, the student senate voted 16-4 to ban Coke products from the school unless Coke O.K.'d an investigation.
At NYU, resolutions passed by the student senate get sent to its University Senate, comprising faculty, administrators, deans of schools, and student senators. CKC's proposal reached the University Senate in February, 2005, where it was routed to the public-affairs committee. Committee chair and faculty spokesperson Arthur Tannenbaum says the group favored continued dialogue with Coca-Cola over a ban. The committee recommended to the rest of the University Senate that Coca-Cola meet with NYU and other universities in a forum organized by the nonprofit Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), and that it agree to a third-party investigation.
Coca-Cola decided instead to host its own forum in May, led by its newly appointed director of global labor relations, Ed Potter. At the end of the day-long session, Potter proposed a working group to further discuss the feasibility of a third-party assessment. A University Commission -- composed of student representatives from DePaul, Hofstra, Indiana University, the University of Michigan, and the University of British Columbia, as well as school administrators and labor leaders from the WRC, the AFL-CIO, the Fair Labor Assn., and United Students Against Sweatshops -- was formed.
Though NYU wasn't part of the commission, CKC members felt optimistic that Coke had begun formal talks about an investigation, says Hancock.
STICKING POINT. The University Commission met three times during the summer and fall to write a protocol for an independent assessment. Coca-Cola representatives dropped out of the commission in July, 2005, after the student members complained that their presence was compromising the group's work. CKC stayed up to date through weekly conference calls with the commission's student members, says Hancock.
In August, the commission presented Coca-Cola with the group's final proposal, but a sticking point prevented the company from signing it. Coca-Cola wanted potential findings from an investigation to be kept separate from an ongoing lawsuit between Sinaltrainal, a Colombian trade union that represents Coke bottling workers, and two of the company's bottlers in Colombia.
That revived a sense of urgency for the NYU campaign last fall, as students flooded back onto campus. The University Senate hosted a public forum for Hancock and another member of the CKC to debate two Coca-Cola representatives. On Oct. 26, five of the six student members of Coca-Cola's University Commission resigned in protest, alleging that the company was "blocking the commission's progress," while using it to "polish its public image."
THE BAN BEGINS. The bold move "helped us set a deadline and express how frustrated people were getting," says Hancock. On Nov. 3, the University Senate voted 28-10 in favor of a ban, but gave Coca-Cola a four-week extension to consent to an investigation.
On Dec. 7, Potter sent a reply to Tannenbaum, saying Coca-Cola would be unable to meet NYU's Dec. 8 deadline but would "continue to attempt to work with universities like yours on a credible third-party assessment in Colombia." The following day, during the last University Senate meeting of the calendar year, Tannenbaum read Potter's letter to the senate and announced the commencement of the ban.
These days, there are no more "NYU Kick Coke" posters plastered around NYU. Says freshman Andrew Zakim: "People are in favor of [the ban], but we're not sitting in the dorms talking about how evil Coke is." A group called "NYU Students for Coke," which opposes the decision, has been thriving on social-networking site Facebook.com.
BIGGER PROBLEMS? Hancock says CKC is still hopeful that Coca-Cola will address its concerns and institute "a new and transparent human-rights policy." Tannenbaum says the university will lift the ban if Coke agrees to an investigation as proposed. Coca-Cola's University Commission has been at a standstill since early November. The five student representatives who resigned in protest have not yet rejoined. "We need to make a decision about how to proceed," says Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, who sits on the commission. "That will happen relatively soon."
A Coca-Cola representative says the company is willing and open to further discuss the issue. But Coke may find itself in a bigger predicament as time passes. In the two years since the NYU campaign began, allegations that Coca-Cola permitted human-rights abuses and environmental degradation in countries like India, Ghana, Turkey, Indonesia, and Guatemala have gained media attention and support on college campuses in particular.
Three weeks after NYU announced its ban, the University of Michigan followed suit, citing questionable behavior by the company in India and Colombia. Coca-Cola says it's developing a global workplace-rights policy that it will adopt at the end of the first quarter of 2006.
PR NIGHTMARE. The cost of losing a customer like NYU, which doesn't have an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola, is difficult to gauge. (An NYU spokesperson didn't know the value of its business with Coke.) But the public-relations hit of losing such a trend-setting school might make any executive wince. "Just like Coca-Cola, NYU is a brand. We're a dream school, the school of [TV series] Felicity, and we make news," says Hancock. Soon Cadbury Schweppes (CSG) brand RC Cola will replace Coke and Minute Maid in NYU's vending machines and dining halls.
Will the preferences and buying behavior of NYU students follow? "Coca-Cola better pay attention to these students," says Tannenbaum. "They're going to be [its] consumers for the next 40 years." By Elizabeth Woyke in New York