Group Protests Coke Contest

Alleged human rights abuse has already prompted 10 campuses to drop company

Wielding signs supporting Harvard workers, shaking Pepsi and Dr. Pepper can noisemakers, and pounding makeshift drums, nearly 40 demonstrators marched in a circle outside the Holyoke Center yesterday, demanding that Harvard discontinue its Coca-Cola contract and provide better working conditions for Harvard’s employees.

Chanting slogans like “What’s disgusting? Union busting! What’s outrageous? Harvard’s wages!,” protestors moved from the Holyoke Center to the Harvard University Dining Services headquarters to University Hall, where the administration was filtering in to a 4 p.m. Faculty Meeting. The protest was organized by Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) as part of the 2006 National Student Labor Week of Action.

The hour-long protest was the first in SLAM’s semester-long “Right To Organize” campaign. In March, the group held a teach-in to inform students about alleged human rights abuses in Colombia and India by Coke.

SLAM leader Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky ’07 said SLAM was waiting to protest until the administration responded to a letter SLAM sent them asking for a meeting to discuss the University’s exclusive contracts with Coke.

Gould-Wartofsky said SLAM was “going through the motions” and only turned to protest after the administration denied meeting with the group.

“If they’re not ready to listen to us, they’re going to have to listen to the public conscience of the university,” he said.

SLAM is targeting Coke for their alleged human rights abuses in Colombia and India. Over 10 college campuses have already dropped Coke contracts over these allegations, including the University of Michigan and New York University.

The demonstrators also targeted Harvard for allegedly trying to bust their employees’ union activities. Genevieve Butler, a three-year employee at Widener Library and member of the Harvard Union of Clerical & Technical Workers, said that she has been threatened by her bosses for her union activity.

“When we come out in actions like this, it’s not what management wants to see,” she said.

A NEW ALLIANCE?

Originally, workers from AlliedBarton Security Services—who have also alleged unfair reprisals for their attempts to unionize—were supposed to participate in the protest. But Allied workers said they decided to pull out after their management sent a letter to workers on March 30 saying that they and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) “have agreed to meet and engage in a constructive dialogue concerning labor relations matters,” surrounding officers at Harvard.

Harvard outsources many of its security needs to Allied, which in turn employs between 250 and 300 officers on Harvard’s campuses.

Paul R. Kane, an Allied officer at the Design School who said he considers himself a leader amongst workers in the effort to unionize, said “good vibes” had been permeating the workforce since the letter was sent.

“This is what we’ve been hoping for all along,” he said. “We just want to open up a dialogue with our company.”

SEIU Local 615 organizer Emerson Harris said that the decision for Allied workers not to protest is a reciprocation of the company’s good will. By not marching, Harris said that workers were telling their company that “if you reach out, so will we.”

SLAM concluded the protest by reading an excerpt from the speech Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the day before his April 4, 1968, death.

—Staff writer Benjamin L. Weintraub can be reached at bweintr@fas.harvard.edu.