Debate & discussion: Boycott Coke?

Submitted by Anon on 23 October, 2003 - 4:58

One of the fiercest debates at the Irish Social Forum (see page 6) was about the decision of University College Dublin's student union to boycott Coke in protest at the company's alleged links with far right paramilitaries in Colombia. Activists say a number of trade union activists in the company's plants have been murdered, many local union organisations have been destroyed, under threat from paramilitary organistions.
Following a call by the Colombian trade union SINALTRAINAL, the leaders of UCD SU (mostly members of Labour Youth or the ex-SWP group Socialist Alternative) organised a referendum on removing the Coca-Cola company's products from all union facilities, and in the event won the boycott decision by a margin of 51% to 49%.

Readers will know about Solidarity's general reservations about boycott campaigns - they can be a distraction from the job of organising positive labour movement solidarity with workers' struggles internationally. In this case, however, the issue presented itself slightly differently.

In Britain, SWP students have been arguing quite seriously that SUs should boycott Coke in favour of Mecca Cola! In contrast, the UCD comrades are clear that, in general, they too oppose boycotts; but they argue that the Colombian Coke workers' call makes a decisive difference. The problem comes because SIPTU, the trade union which represents Coke workers in Ireland, opposes a boycott and has exchanged some harsh words with UCD SU in both the Irish labour movement and the national press. (The international Coke workers' union has also voted overwhelmingly to oppose a boycott.) This dispute was a recurring theme at the ISF, with Labour Party students and trade unionists by and large taking opposite sides (though the SU points out that the opinion of SIPTU members is no more homogenous than that of UCD students).

All this seems to me to present a genuinely difficult dilemma for socialists. What do readers think?

Alan Clarke