Breach of the Coca-Cola boycott by those who instigated the ban in the first place may come as a bit of a surprise to many students. Although the very fact that not many students were surprised to find Coca-cola products, such as Diet Coke and Lilt, for sale on the Students’ Union (SU) shop shelves raises the question that the boycott may have lost some of its resonance on the Belfield campus.
Introduced in UCD when most current first year students were 13 years old, it’s not surprising that many students remain unaware that Coca-Cola is not usually available in SU run shops. Despite receiving great media attention back in 2003, the ban of Coca-Cola products is not visible on campus five years later. Most vending machines are stocked with the soft drink and independent restaurants, such as Elements, O’Briens and the Café Brava all sell cans to thirsty students.
In response to Colombian trade unions calling for a worldwide boycott of Coca-Cola, students who were angered by reports linking Coca- Cola to human rights abuses against trade union members, including reports that a number of trade union employees were murdered, pushed for a boycott of the products.
At the time of the referendum there were strong campaigns from both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ sides. However when SIPTU members campaigned outside the university gates urging a ‘No’ vote, they were penalised leading to the ‘Yes’ campaign producing more leaflets.
A margin of 59 votes separated the two sides at the first referendum in Autumn 2003, with 51 percent of students voting in favour of the boycott. However an appeal to overturn this result was lodged and a second referendum was then held. The second referendum saw a considerably high voter turnout and over 56 per cent voted in favour of maintaing the new boycott in SU outlets. Considering many students failed to notice that Coca-Cola products stood for sale in the SU Engineering shop, it must be questioned that if yet another referendum was to take place, would the ‘Yes’ vote win? Or would students fail to vote at all?
UCD’s boycott of Coca-Cola products illustrated that students had rejected the political apathy that we are of often accused of, and made a stand on an important issue. This view resonated around the world as universities worldwide followed UCD’s lead and boycotted Coca-Cola products on their campuses.
Five years on from the initiation of the boycott, the legal case against Coca-Cola is ongoing. There have been calls for an independent review of practices at their bottling plants, and in March 2008 a lawsuit seeking financial compensation for the survivors in Colombia was filed with the US courts. Colombia is, according to Amnesty International, one of the most dangerous countries to be a member of a trade union, where more than 2, 500 members of trade unions have been killed since 1986. According to the Colombian Confederation Of Trade Unions, 41 trade union members have been murdered this year.
Perhaps the SU should be criticised for the lack of knowledge on the sale of Coca-Cola products in their Engineering shop, not to mention the fact that many students are unaware of the ban simply because it is not publicised. Students are not presented with posters in the SU shops explaining to them why they cannot buy Coca-Cola there, adding to this the availability of the product in Belfield means that freshers’ could walk in and walk out as graduates and remain wholly unaware of the boycott. It may come as a surprise to some students to learn that there is also a SU boycott of Nestle products, which has been implemented since 1993.
Coca-Cola is still very much a visible presence on campus, and is evidently popular with students. Coca-Cola sponsored the Business & Legal Society (B&L) last year, and cans of Coke were given out in goody bags during Freshers’ Week this year. These factors may give cause to suggest that many students are not personally opposed to Coca-Cola, however it must be taken into account that there have been no recent protests against the boycott or attempts to challenge it.
Five years after the boycott began, it is time that the SU explains to students why the boycott is in place and actively seek their feedback, through the committee which was mandated by SU council last semester. SU President, Mr Ó Deá has said that “if the students want to bring it to a vote again, we’re happy to put it to the vote and to express our views on it. It’s the wishes of the students who are in UCD at the moment, who didn’t get a chance to vote. We still put it in our handbook and try to tell students about the boycott. I’d say it might come up again in the next few years”.
The Coca-Cola boycott committee which was mandated by council last semester should be assembled as soon as possible, and get to work on publicising and explaining the ban. In addition to this, students must surveyed to gauge whether the boycott is relevant and important, as the issue has somewhat faded from international headlines. If UCD students wish to boycott Coca-Cola, it must not be a half-hearted attempt.
The boycott needs to be constantly and strictly adhered to if it is to be effective in its function. And it is the sole responsibility of the SU President to ensure that all new employees are aware of the boycott, so that a breach will not occur again.