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Anti-Corporate Campaigners Call on TIAA-CREF to Dump Wal-Mart and Coke Stock as Unethical Investments
by Matthew Williams
Boston Indy Media - July 11, 2005

On Monday, July 11, 2005, a dozen people gathered for half-an-hour starting at noon outside TIAA-CREF’s offices in Boston’s financial district. They were protesting and passing out informational fliers as part of the lead up to next week’s TIAA-CREF annual shareholders meeting, where members of the Make TIAA-CREF Ethical Coalition will press TIAA-CREF, one of the country’s largest pension funds, to divest from Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and other corporations that do not do business ethically. Wal-Mart is well known for its exploitive labor practices, while Coke is guilty of a number of socially irresponsible practices, ranging from marketing junk food to children in the US to complicity with death squads in Colombia.

Representatives from a number of member of organizations of the Make TIAA-CREF Ethical Coalition (http://www.makeTIAA-CREFethical.org ) were present at the rally. The theme that repeatedly came up was that many corporations are abusing their immense social power to engage in activities that, while they may be profitable, are socially harmful.

Al Norman of Sprawl-Busters (http://www.sprawl-busters.com ), a group that campaigns against Wal-Mart and other big-box chain-stores, described Wal-Mart as, “a chain of exploitation that stretches from sweatshops in China to the sales floor in Massachusetts. At every link in the chain, someone is exploited.” Wal-Mart has become notorious in the US for paying its employees poverty-level wages, forcing them to work off the clock (that is, without pay), and locking their employees in the stores at night (a violation of fire safety codes). In addition to Wal-Mart’s ugly record of exploiting workers, Sprawl-Busters is also highly critical of the impact Wal-Mart and other such chain-stores have on local communities through the pattern of sprawl they encourage. Sprawl refers to poorly planned development, in which huge stores (with huge parking lots) on the edge of town take up great amounts of formerly open land; and also draws investment and tax-payers’ money away from the center of towns and small cities, causing local businesses to go under and cities to not engage in efforts to revitalize their community-based commercial areas.

Coca-Cola, with is production facilities and marketing campaigns across the world, is also guilty of human rights violations and other socially irresponsible practices across the world. Kim Foltz, of Mass. Global Action (http://www.massglobalaction.org ), said that they are targeting Coke for its complicity with human rights abuses in Colombia: “In Colombia, union activists have been intimidated, tortured and killed for participation in union activities at Coke’s bottling facilities. Coke managers seem to be complicit in these actions, since they have taken no measures to stop them. In Colombia in general, there is all sorts of violence targeting all sorts of people, including labor unionists. Why aren’t transnational corporations like Coke trying to change things? Why do they continue to do business there if these are the conditions for their workers?” There is a fair amount of evidence that not only is Coke not trying to change things, but that they have connections with right-wing paramilitary groups using terrorist tactics against workers trying to organize independently of Coke’s company union. Paramilitary groups have not attacked the labor organizers themselves, but have gone so far as to kidnap and torture labor organizers’ young children. (For more information, see http://www.killercoke.org).

Foltz also criticized Coke’s operations in India, where half the population is below poverty level and, “70% of the population relies on agriculture. Coke is mining the water supply--in areas where they have their bottling plants, the water table has dropped dramatically. Coke also dumps its toxic waste back into the water stream.” This has devastated the livelihoods of thousands of people--primarily the poor, members of the lower castes and indigenous people--who depend on agriculture and therefore a plentiful water supply to survive. People in affected areas are demanding that Coke’s bottling plants be shut down and their need for water for drinking and basic agricultural production be given priority over the production of luxury goods like soda. (For more information, see http://www.indiaresource.org ).

Many supporters of corporate globalization argue that transnational investment by companies like Coke is actually beneficial and claim that groups like Mass. Global Action are just protectionist rackets, trying to deny people in the third world jobs. In response, Foltz said that, “our campaigns are linked to grassroots campaigns in both Colombia and India. Giant transnational corporations like Coke can go into countries like India and deprive people of their livelihood, their traditional way of life on the land. Corporate globalization actually makes it harder for these people to survive. Coke may provide jobs, but at what price?”

Jason Pramas, also of Mass. Global Action, said of their goals in these two campaigns, “In the short run, we’d like to see the establishment in Colombia of an independent commission--that is, one without Coke representatives on it--to look into the atrocities occurring in that country. We’d also like to see the shut-down of Coke’s bottling plants in India, where they are depriving people of water for basic human needs to make a beverage that doesn’t do much for people’s health.”

Coke also has critics for their actions closer to home. Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org ) described Coke as “a company that markets nutritionally worthless products to kids, which helps to fuel the childhood obesity epidemic. Coke claims they don’t market to children under twelve, but they advertise on American Idol, one of the most popular shows among children; they put their soda machines into schools and have lobbied against policies that would get soda out of schools; and they make toys for children as young as two, like little Cola-Cola cars, a Coca-Cola Barbie, and a Coca-Cola checker set.”

Golin said Coke’ shady practices abroad were not unconnected with their shady practices at home: “When corporations have unrestrained power, they exploit vulnerable populations--in Colombia it’s workers, here it’s children.”

Golin said that one of the long-term goals of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is, “to get people to consider people the way companies market to children as part of the question of social responsibility, in addition to questions about the environment and labor rights. People don’t think about marketing to kids now, and until that happens, these companies won’t change.”

The picket, although small, was part of a build-up for a larger action next week, when members of the Make TIAA-CREF Ethical Coalition will attend TIAA-CREF’s annual stockholder meeting to press it to divest from socially irresponsible corporations, including not just Wal-Mart and Coke, but other companies such as Nike (notorious for sweatshop production), Altria (formerly Philip Morris, the cigarette manufacturer), Unocal (an oil company which does business with the pariah military regime of Burma), and Costco (which is illegally building warehouses on historically important sites in Mexico). Particularly galling to activists is the fact that not only does TIAA-CREF, a pension fund for professors, teachers and other educators, have money invested in Coca-Cola stock, but they include Coke in their supposedly socially responsible “Social Choice” accounts. According to Golin, the Make TIAA-CREF Ethical Coalition sent TIAA-CREF a letter about these socially irresponsible investment practices in February and has yet to receive a reply.

Foltz explained the strategic thinking behind the campaign targeting TIAA-CREF: “If major institutional investors like TIAA-CREF withdraw their investments from companies like Coke, it sends a message to corporations that they need to change their practices. Targeting such institutional investments is a point of leverage that can be very powerful.”


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