For several months, Community Action for Justice in the Americas (CAJA) has urged UM students to boycott Coca-Cola products in hopes that a nationwide boycott would force the soft-drink company to take a closer look at the labor practices of its bottling partners in Colombia (see “Coke’s Grizzly business,” Oct. 3, 2002 and “Brand loyalty,” Dec. 19, 2002, by Mike Keefe-Feldman). In an effort to make public a connection between exclusive Coke contracts such as UM’s and complicity in alleged human rights violations in Colombia, the Montana Human Rights Network recently hosted William Mendoza, a leader of the Coca-Cola workers union in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. Mendoza, along with his translator—long-time Missoula activist with CAJA and the Human Rights Network Scott Nicholson—met with members of the UM administration and representatives from Coca-Cola on Tuesday, April 23 in President George Dennison’s office. Also present at the meeting was Robert Duringer, UM vice president for administration and finance and S’bu Mngadi, director of media relations for the Coca-Cola company.
Media relations were hardly a priority during the meeting, however, as the Independent was asked to leave immediately upon arriving in the president’s office.
“This is a private meeting. We think that the talk will be better for everybody if there’s not a media person present,” Duringer said.
Nicholson says it’s noteworthy that Coke and UM administrators were willing to discuss the issue only behind closed doors.
“A couple of months ago, the forensics team on campus proposed a public forum…on the Coke contract, inviting basically all of the people that were at [this] meeting…The administration and Coke said that they weren’t willing to participate, but yet they were willing to bring all these people together for a ‘private meeting.’”
During the meeting, Mendoza asked UM to drop its exclusive Coca-Cola contract until labor conditions improve in Colombia.
“We want the boycott to be so strong that Coca-Cola will feel so much pressure that it cannot fire anybody, but if the boycott doesn’t take off with enough force, surely I and other companeros are going to be killed. This is why we’re asking the people to support us. It’s for our lives,” Mendoza said in an interview the day before the private meeting.
“There are certainly some bad things going on in Colombia,” said Duringer. “And I’m very sympathetic that Mr. Mendoza probably has had his life threatened, but from the research that we’ve done…I can’t make a connection from what’s happening at that bottling plant back to Coke in Atlanta, and certainly not from Coke in Atlanta back to Missoula, Mont.”
Dennison concluded that the university would not terminate its exclusive Coke contract, Nicholson said.
Mngadi, speaking from the Coca-Cola Company’s headquarters in Atlanta, said that the company maintains that Mendoza’s allegations of Coke’s complicity in Colombian threats and killings are false. Mngadi would not provide an answer as to whether or not he has personally visited Colombia, stating that he was speaking as a representative of the Coca-Cola company and not as an individual human being.