November 20, 2007

COLA Pressures Cornell to Change Coffee Provider

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As Cornell decides whether or not to renew its contract with Starbucks, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action is putting student pressure on the administration to find an alternative coffee supplier, due to the accusations of Starbucks’s questionable labor practices.
In many cafés on campus, Cornell students drink Seattle’s Best Coffee, which is owned by Starbucks. While this may seem like a harmless activity, to some students, Cornell may actually be endorsing unfair labor practices.
Fil Eden ’10, member of COLA, believes there are dangerous unintended consequences of supporting Starbucks.
“The National Labor Relations Board is a government agency that investigates potential labor violations only if the accuser has a good case,” Eden said. “The NLRB has accused Starbucks of 38 labor violations. Some of the violation accusations include forbidding workers to talk about unionizing on the job or firing workers trying to start a union. Cornell should not renew the contract with Starbucks if they are being accused of potential labor violations.”
Tara Darrow, a Starbucks spokeswoman, makes the distinction between accused and potential labor violations.
“The National Labor Relations Board has not made any decisions related to the hearing at this time, and Starbucks has not been found to have committed any unfair labor practices by the NLRB or any other court,” Darrow said. “That is an important item for clarification.”
Although Cornell is aware of these possible violations of labor standards, the University is still hesitant to make any presumptions about the entire company.
Victor Younger, general manager of Retail Operations of Cornell Dining, said, “In any large organization there is going to be problems of this nature. However, this might not be representative of Starbucks.”
Enraged by Starbucks labor practices, COLA has made efforts to kick Seattle’s Best Coffee off Cornell’s campus by providing Cornell Dining with alternate coffee supplier who have high quality of labor practices. On Oct. 30 and 31, Cornell Dining let the students select the on-campus coffee provider by hosting Coffee Taste Tests, which compared Seattle’s Best Coffee with other coffee suppliers, Omar’s Coffee, McCullagh’s Coffee, Ola’s Coffee, Ithaca Coffee and Gimme! Coffee.
By discussing their views with the University and implementing their ideas in surveys aimed to gather student feedback, COLA has played an active role through Cornell Dining’s decision process.
“We have been working with COLA through the process by keeping them abreast about recent developments and incorporating their thoughts in our student survey,” Younger said. “There are seven main criteria that make up our decision. These include fair trade, ability to make a Cornell blend, marketing strategy, event support, equipment, utilizing a local company as a distributor, and price points. We are looking these components when making our final choice.”
Although this has been a heated topic for some students, Fil Eden is surprised that this issue with Starbucks has not been a source of major protest on Cornell’s campus. Even though it does not pertain to the welfare of Cornell students, Eden urges kids to become better educated consumers.
“We’re living in an age in which a lot of people do not think when they buy things,” Eden said. “It’s hard to believe but every person’s shopping habits, like Starbucks coffee, may have drastic consequences somewhere else. It is hard to tell people to care about people they will never meet or even know.”
According to Prof. Sarosh Kuruvilla, collective bargaining, consumer pressure is an important motivator for companies to uphold ethical labor standards.
“What motivates companies’ ethical practices are external pressures and being seen as a good corporate citizen,” Kuruvilla said. “The two are closely related. If a company can make the case it’s ethical, then this becomes a good defense against any future problems. When an error arises, a corporation with fair labor standards can fall back on the fact that their company is socially responsible. Consumers are a major part of the external pressure because they are what determine a firm’s bottom line.”
Not only do consumers have substantial power to ensure corporate social responsibility, but college kids also have a unique ability to organize such campaigns to promote fair labor practices.
“College students are one kind of consumer,” Kuruvilla said. “They have the time, idealism and energy needed to organize these campaigns. As long as college students can vocalize their complaints and put pressure on large corporations to have fair labor practices, then they can progress the ethics of global labor standards.”
As for Cornell’s final decision, Younger believes that Cornell will choose a coffee supplier within the upcoming weeks.
“We’ve gathered back all the information and are now analyzing it,” Younger said. “We will be making our decision after Thanksgiving.”