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Will Coke be it?
| Coke might not be the real thing for McGill after all.
Students opposed to the long-term exclusivity agreement that McGill and the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) have been hammering out with Coca-Cola Enterprises have succeeded in ensuring that the issue is going to referendum.
Students will have the opportunity to vote on whether or not Coke is able to secure the right to sell its cold beverage products without competition throughout most of the University.
In return for the exclusivity rights, McGill and SSMU would receive an unspecified amount of cash, likely in the millions of dollars.
About $1.5 million would be spent on upgrading the University Centre, bringing it up to current standards for fire safety and wheelchair accessibility.
Dozens of North American universities have struck up such deals with either Coke or Pepsi. According to a CBC Radio report on these agreements, universities generally earn between $500,000 and $1 million a year as a result of them.
But the tide seems to be turning against the cola companies. One proposed deal was recently the subject of heated debate at the Université du Québec à Montréal, where a cola contract was killed in the wake of student protests. Deals at the University of Toronto and Simon Fraser were also shot down as a result of student pressure.
SSMU vice-president (operations) Kevin McPhee insists that McGill's proposed deal is unique.
"SSMU was involved in this from the beginning," says McPhee, adding that deals at other universities usually weren't negotiated with student representatives present at the bargaining table. "Students had a lot more input into this deal than was the case at the other universities."
Apart from the planned renovations to the University Centre, McPhee says the deal will generate urgently needed cash for students.
McGill sports teams would earn valuable sponsorships and McGill students would have access to new jobs resulting from the agreement.
McPhee says SSMU might create more student bursaries with its share of the money, or boost the amount of money it spends on student clubs, or use it to reduce student fees.
"Spending the money won't be a problem."
Management student Tamana Kochar, a candidate in the upcoming election for SSMU president, says McPhee's assurances that the deal will benefit students aren't enough to sway her.
She is bothered by the fact that much of the deal is, and will remain, confidential. She says it's unfair for McGill and SSMU to expect "every undergraduate student society to be bound to this agreement for 11 years without knowing what's in it."
That's the principal reason she became involved in the effort to bring the matter to a student referendum. Five hundred student signatures were required to force a vote — Kochar and her allies successfully collected the signatures.
Kochar is also troubled by SSMU and the University's willingness to give a corporation a monopoly for its products on campus.
When asked about McPhee's view that the deal is a mechanism for attracting much-needed cash, Kochar replies, "But we'll always be short of money if we don't get [better funding] from the government." She regards the Coke deal as, at best, a Band-Aid solution.
Philippe Gohier also opposes the deal. An engineering student representative on SSMU Council, Gohier believes such contracts with corporations "compromise the academic integrity of McGill."
Gohier says universities are supposed to be able to "act as social critics." After entering into such agreements, "How are we going to criticize corporate involvement in education? How are we going to criticize Coke?"
McPhee doesn't think that's a concern. "No clauses [in the proposed deal] allow [Coke] to have any influence over how courses are run. They have no recourse if a professor decides to bad-talk Coke in class. This just isn't a concern."
McPhee also says that McGill's proposed deal would protect students from price gouging. Some students charge that similar deals at other universities resulted in the price of soft drinks going up markedly. "That won't happen here."
Gohier accuses Coke of having a "chequered history" when it comes to human rights issues. He says the company has been charged with conducting business with repressive regimes, such as the Nigeria government. A web site created by opponents to the Coke deal accuses the company of unsavoury labour practices in Central America among other offences.
For its part, Coke says it always operates within the law and gives away millions each year to support a variety of charities.
What happens if students vote against the Coke deal? Can McGill negotiate an agreement without SSMU?
Alan Charade, director of Ancillary Services, is noncommittal. "We'll see what happens, then we'll evaluate what options the University has for the future." He adds, though, that he "wasn't happy to see what happened at UQAM."
McPhee says that if students pull out of the talks, he believes the deal will fall apart. SSMU controls "about a third of the cola volume on campus. In other situations where students voted against the deals, Coke and Pepsi were usually unwilling to negotiate any further."
The referendum vote will occur on March 7-9. Advance polls are on February 26 and March 2.