A Struggle in Solidarity with Others: Lessons from a Student Campaign Battling a Giant Corporation

— By Sayan Bhattacharyya

I AM A graduate student from India, studying at a university in Michigan. Some time ago, I became involved in a campaign to kick the Coca Cola company off the campus because of their treatment of workers and the surrounding community at their plants in India and Colombia.

While walking one day through the university’s central quadrangle, I saw undergraduates distributing fliers and accepted one. The flier asked people to assemble in the University Union to work on creating and assembling banners and posters for an upcoming demonstration, where one of the Coca Cola company high-ups was going to be speaking at a panel discussion at the university's business school. I went and found several others making posters, and joined. Several others seemed to have shown up in the same way I had.

Some of the students were from various organizations, while others, like me, were in none. Represented were Amnesty International’s campus chapter, several environmental groups, Latino/Hispanic student organizations and a group called Students Organizing for Labor Equality. The range of groups that were able to form a coalition reflected the range of problems the corporation posed.

Coke has bottling plants in Colombia, where trade unionists have been killed by paramilitary forces suspected of working in collusion with plant managers. Several of the company's plants in India are suspected of contributing to groundwater depletion in surrounding areas. Coke had also gained notoriety when a test by a non-profit environmental organization allegedly proved that the bottled drinks the company sold throughout India had high levels of pesticide.

It is noteworthy that the group had come together not to listen to a speech, but to do some work together, with a fixed and definite objective. It was also a space in which each of us was using our own creativity, based on our own ideas, yet also collaborating in pursuit of a shared, well-defined aim. Looking back, I realize that this was a very effective way to draw people into struggle as participants, within the parameters of a structured, yet voluntary and creative, activity, in which each person could contribute by freely expressing his or her creative agency for a common goal.



***


The demonstration was to be held at a "corporate social responsibility" panel during a conference at the Business School, where a representative from Coke was going to be on the panel. The students organizing the protest had decided to expose the Coke representative on the panel to an innovative form of public ridicule. They had strung together many Coke bottles and cans into a giant chain about fifty feet long. They had discussed what would be the most effective way to make a statement. Some floated the idea of walking down to the stage en masse and seizing the microphones. Others had argued against this, saying that this would be counterproductive because the audience might tune out the message if they thought the action disruptive.

Eventually, the group decided that a couple of students would walk down to the stage without warning, and take a minute or two explaining why they were protesting against Coke. It was hoped that the element of surprise would provide just enough time for the students to speak before the security guards could cart them off the stage. Meanwhile, a group of students would silently parade up and down, presenting the surreal spectacle of strung-up cans and bottles. This “guerrilla theater” would, it was hoped, throw the event into disarray.

On the day of the protest, we passed out informational fliers to those attending. Our presence created, I think, a sense of anticipation on campus that something interesting was about to happen. There certainly was a palpable sense of tension in the air. When the students “rushed” the stage there was a collective gasp from the audience. While the “rushers” delivered their short speech, the rest paraded the chain with mock-solemn silence. There was a murmuring ripple of laughter.

These minimally disruptive actions completely changed, however, the dynamic in the room. During the discussion session, most questions that the audience asked ended up being directly or indirectly related to the concerns we had raised. We had strategically sprinkled ourselves among the audience, with banners and posters on full display, and asked pertinent questions.

This demonstrated that the protesters were not mindlessly disruptive, but were, instead, intelligent, thoughtful members -- citizens -- of the university community. It showed that the protesters were fluent both in the language of street protest and in the language of the academy -- we communicated that we were participating in the university's own mission of critical thought and inquiry. We succeeded in capturing the audience's interest and attention by organizing a protest that was inventive, innovative and combined performance art and humor.


***


From that point onwards, I was on the coalition’s mailing list. There is controversy over whether email and the Internet are effective organizing tools. I believe that the most effective kind of organization happens when the Internet and electronic media facilitate face-to-face interaction. Email functioned in several different ways. A few of the most active students subscribed to a national mailing list of representative campus coalitions across the USA and Canada. On our own campus, there was a mailing list for representatives of organizations that formed the coalition. They were expected to pass along important information to their own groups. And finally there was a mailing list for those who wanted to be informed of future events or developments on the campaign.

This system enabled large numbers of students to mobilize for actions at relatively short notice. (The coalition also had a website, but it was used mainly for posting press releases and statements in the later stage of the campaign.) Tiered and efficient without being top-down or hierarchical in an undemocratic way, the above methods of communication proved quite effective.


***


How did the coalition function? First, it was made up of many pre-existing student groups. It was also a coalition between similar campaigns at different universities, as we coordinated activities and kept in touch. Campaigns from different campuses were able to share ideas, discuss strategies, and most importantly, draw inspiration and encouragement from success on other campuses.

The campaign itself represented a kind of coalition activism as students on U.S. or Canadian campuses agitated about a multinational company's activities in Colombia and in India, while at the same time large numbers of people in those countries were, also, of course, actively agitating around these demands. Implicitly, then, this was a coalition between “first worlders” and “third worlders,” the relatively elite and the relatively underprivileged.

Such a coalition, by its nature, raises an array of questions and issues.

The students demanded that Coke not be allowed to sell its products on campus, because, given its unethical conduct, this would violate the university's Vendor Code of Conduct. So this was a consumer-led protest -- not a consumer boycott, but a more focused, and potentially more effective, resistance that demanded that the university be accountable to its own stated goals.

But could the students ethically claim to speak on behalf of the affected people in India or Colombia? In recognition of this challenge, the student campaign took a conscious decision to play a supporting role, deferring to all decisions taken by activists on the ground, remaining in constant communication with them.

This proved easier in the Colombian case than in the Indian. In fact, leading Colombian trade unionists were able to tour the county, addressing audiences at well-publicized public meetings, which was not possible for Indian activists because of the greater distance involved. But we also found an ally in the India Resource Center, a nonprofit organization in California, which is run by an Indian expatriate activist who travels to the India regularly, thus serving as a comunication channel between activists in India and the USA.

Thus the politics of the campaign were a politics of solidarity rather than a politics of representation. Students were careful to avoid what is always a potential pitfall when there is a coalition between the relatively powerful and the relatively powerless -- the danger of “appropriating” the agency of others. For example, when a campus newspaper invited student activists to write op-ed articles, the students insisted on giving the Indian and Colombian activists space to write first-person narratives. Likewise, on the campaign website, students provided posted statements not only from the student campaign but also from the Colombian union and peasants' organizations in India.


***


In building any movement, there are usually two aspects that need to develop simultaneously: the power of mass mobilization, which expresses demands in the rhetoric and the spectacle of the streets, and the less inchoate and more chiseled focus of legalistic argument, which articulates the same demands in the corridors of power. Both of these are modalities of speaking truth to power. The most successful movements are able to develop a mutually reinforcing two-pronged strategy.

Previous campus struggles against sweatshop conditions had resulted in universities adopting a "Vendor Code of Conduct" (VCC) mechanism that is binding on any company selling products at the university, particularly apparel using the university logo. During the hearings that had led to the adoption of the VCC, students had pressured universities to apply the standard not only to U.S.-based plants but also to operations abroad, where the abuse is the greatest.

With the VCC in place, the students were able to argue that the demand to kick out a particular supplier is not an overly idealistic, utopian demand but a quite reasonable request that the university abide by its own officially announced policy. Similar codes of conduct had also been adopted, or were in the process of adoption, at many campuses in the United States and Canada. As a result of this, similar campaigns could be launched against this soft-drink company at various institutions, holding each institution accountable for abiding by its own policy.

Thus, the relative success of the movement on campus was the result of long-term work put in by students over several years, and the replication of successful strategies in different universities. Continuity was crucial, and was provided by the sustained existence of the same student organizations over years (even though individual students belonging to them were graduating every year).

While on the "legalistic" side the students were able to make concrete and specific demands and articulate an easily comprehensible and communicable rationale for why these demands were being made, it goes without saying that, as in any movement, the legalistic demands had to be backed by the power of mobilization on the street.

Once, during the early part of the campaign, student groups asked the university student government to pass a resolution demanding that the university cut its contracts with the company. The student government held hearings, inviting representatives from the activist students as well as from Coke. The coalition mobilized students to show up en masse. The energy of the crowd fed the energy of the boycott speakers, and the speakers became more eloquent with the support of the crowd.



***


What did the students accomplish in the end? The story is not yet over as of this writing. On the “legal” front, students filed a complaint with the university's Dispute Review Board stating that Coke was in violation of the Vendor Code of Conduct. The Dispute Review Board held public hearings at which both sides spoke and concluded that there was reasonable ground to suspect that the company was indeed in violation of the VCC. The Board recommended that the company subject itself to further investigation, which Coke refused to do.

The university, under intense student pressure, cut their contract, upon which Coke agreed, a few weeks later, to an "assessment" (its chosen euphemism for an investigation). The university backtracked, then restored the contracts while also arranging for an Indian nonprofit research institute and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to assess the situation.

On the basis of these reports, the university decided that the company was off the hook, despite the Indian team's report finding significant problems – in particular, groundwater depletion at the site of Coke’s bottling plants. This assessment did, in this way, succeed in providing activists in India with documentation. Thus the students' work has already led to some concrete results.

Perhaps the most important result through this three-year-long agitation at the university was, however, the effect on the participating students themselves. One student, for example, went to Colombia after graduation to work with the Colombian labor union at Coke and then has returned to work as a union organizer in the USA, while others are working for progressive organizations or pursuing activist scholarship in graduate school. The campaign has left an influence on the activists. These effects are being felt in ways large and small as the participants move on to new projects in the course of their post-university lives.


**


In her 'Confronting Empire' speech in January 2003 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy made a series of powerful remarks towards the end of her speech. [1] She said, "We can continue to build public opinion until it becomes a deafening roar... Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but ...to deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness... The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling -- ... their notion of inevitability. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

The fight for another world, a better world, has to be fought and won incrementally, inch by inch, person by person, even if it seems tantalizingly close and almost within our reach. It will be won through building coalitions and building solidarity. There was evidence of all these aspects of successful struggle in this small and humble episode: one struggle among many unfolding today in the world.

In June 2008, Frei Betto, the Brazilian liberation theologian, wrote: "I think the best present would be to see new generations believing and struggling for a better world, where solidarity is a habit, not a virtue; where the practice of justice is an ethical demand, and socialism the political name for love." [2] The students at this U.S. university had successful careers waiting for them after graduation. They did not have to do what they did, and yet they did so, without thinking that they were doing something exceptional. Solidarity, for these students, had – in Frei Betto’s language -- become "a habit".

If they could act in this way, others can, too -- and the ethical demand whose name is “the practice of justice” can perhaps become universal and omnipresent in a future world -- where to be a socialist may be as natural as to be in love!

Notes:

1. Roy, Arundhati. “Confronting Empire” (Speech Given at World Social Forum, January 27, 2003, in Porto Alegre, Brazil). Reprinted in: North Bay Progressive Newspaper, Feb 25 - Mar 25, 2003.

2. Betto,Frei. “14 de junio, 80 cumpleaños del Che Guevara: Mensaje de aniversario” (“Message for Che Guevara's 80th birthday on June 14”), Granma, Cuba, 2008.

(web only, July-August 2009)

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