Why Did the AFT End Its Coca-Cola Boycott?

In October, 2014, the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution to boycott all Coca-Cola products.

The resolution — “Stop Coca-Cola’s Abuse of Children and Violation of Human Rights” —  called for a boycott of Coca-Cola products based upon a litany of violations of workers’ rights and child labor laws on the part of the company.

Now, just four months after that resolution was passed, the AFT executive committee, has reversed course and passed a resolution ending the boycott.

AFT officials said that the passage of the boycott resolution last year “drew an immediate reaction from the Coca-Cola Company, whose national leadership sought an opportunity to provide the American Federation of Teachers with information on actions taken in recent years to address these concerns.”

As a result of these meetings, the AFT “will collaborate with the Coca-Cola Company in areas where we have a strong mutual interest, such as the elimination of hazardous child labor and advocating for increased educational opportunities for children as the best way to eliminate the poverty that is the root cause of child labor.”

The partnership agreement between AFT and Coca-Cola was signed March 23 by AFT President Randi Weingarten and Ed Potter, Coke’s director of global workplace rights.

Also on hand was former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, who is a member of the Coca-Cola board of directors.

The grassroots movement to push the Coca-Cola boycott resolution was spearheaded by Barbara Bowen, a professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY) and current president of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY. Bowen did not return calls seeking comment.

But the reversal of the boycott did not sit well with the AFT members at the grassroots who were involved in getting the boycott resolution passed. And it did not sit well with other consumer and labor activists.

Sharon Silvio, an AFT union member from Rochester, New York, said she was “very disappointed” in the reversal of the boycott and wanted questions answered about how and why the reversal came about.

NYU Professor Marion Nestle, author of the upcoming Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) (Oxford University Press, October 2015), said Coca-Cola’s partnership with AFT “is an example of Coke’s typical strategy: partner and buy the silence of the partners on issues of labor rights and health.”

“How much did this cost Coke?” Nestle asked. “Not enough to be worth it, I’ll bet.”

Gary Ruskin of the Oakland, California based U.S. Right to Know said that Coca-Cola “preys on American children and is responsible in part for the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes that afflicts our nation’s children.”

“It is not the proper role of the American Federation of Teachers to partner with child predators, such as Coca-Cola,” Ruskin said. “By partnering with a child predator, the AFT’s agreement will undermine the moral authority of teachers nationwide. That is a regrettable outcome for teachers, schools, and especially our children, who deserve so much better from their teachers.”

The labor activist Ray Rogers, director of Corporate Campaign Inc., who was instrumental in getting the boycott resolution passed by the AFT, said that he hoped that Weingarten “at least got a lifetime’s worth of free product for advancing Coca-Cola’s interests over the well being of children.”

“Her actions have helped Coca-Cola promote yet another display of phony compassion for children, while obliterating the hard work of AFT members and local leaders to pass a resolution aimed at holding the company accountable for the use of illegal child labor in the dangerous fields of sugar cane harvesting, and Coke’s well-documented complicity in violence against union leaders in Colombia and Guatemala and the outsourcing of thousands of jobs to low-wage subcontractors,” Rogers said.

Rogers said that CNN’s Kyung Lah’s May 2, 2012 expose on illegal, hazardous child labor in Mindanao portrayed Coca-Cola as one of the main customers of Filipino sugar factories.

One 13-year-old boy, Alvic James, explained that he dropped out of school when he was in the first grade because “his family didn’t have enough money to eat.” Alvic says he wants to learn to read and write but because he is needed in the fields he has “no time to go to school.”

“The most effective way for Coca-Cola to help end illegal child labor in places like the Philippines and El Salvador is not through pointless additional studies, audits and meaningless rhetoric, but to pay sugar processors enough money to pay fair wages to sugar cane harvesters,” Rogers said. “Then these children can live a life free of the plantation fields and be in schools and playgrounds.”

The AFT released a picture of Weingarten sitting beside two of Coca-Cola officials — Ed Potter and Alexis Herman —  in front of  two bottles of Coke, two bottles of Sprite, a can of Diet Coke and a large Coca-Cola canister.

“A question for the 1.6 million teachers and health professionals AFT represents — what message does this photo and Randi Weingarten’s promotion of Coca-Cola send to teachers, parents and health professionals everywhere?” Rogers asked.

“Randi Weingarten should get paid well from Coke’s advertising department as it continues to aggressively market products to children that fuel the childhood obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes epidemics,” Rogers said.

Russell Mokhiber edits Corporate Crime Reporter.

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..