AMS rescinds non-exclusive cold beverage agreement internal policy

At its August 9 meeting, the AMS Council voted to rescind the internal policy that bars the society from entering into exclusive cold beverage agreements. 

First introduced at the July 19 meeting, the motion was described as a “housekeeping item” that aims at cleaning up the AMS’s internal policies by removing those deemed to be outdated. A vote was tabled until the August 9 meeting to give the executives more time to research the subject. 

Nonetheless, the overall process in which this internal policy was evaluated and removed seemed straightforward.

“We are trying to use internal policies more because they are easier to digest and when we do that, there is an inclination to get rid of some of the internal policies that haven’t been as relevant,” said Interim VP Academic Jakob Gattinger, who is also on the Governance Committee which proposed the removal. “We also try to keep a standardized format, and one of its components is the review period, where we look back and say ‘is this policy effective? Is it doing what we want it to do?’”

This stands in contrast with how the policy came into being in 2006 — as a response to the controversial 10-year exclusive cold beverage contract between Coca Cola, UBC and the AMS.

Historical context

First signed in 1995, the deal granted Coca Cola exclusivity over the university’s market for its products, in return for “$8.5 million in funding over 10 years.” It was the first arrangement of its kind in Canada. 

Despite being pushed through by both UBC’s Board of Governors and the AMS, the contract was unpopular to many students from the start.

Joe Clark — The Ubyssey’s production coordinator in 1995 — attributed this criticism partially to the anti-corporate sentiment that was prevalent in the 1990s and partially to the contract’s confidentiality clause that bars the university and the society from sharing its details. 

“In the mid '90s, one of the big causes of student activism was the threat of corporatization of campus … and the Coke deal sort of became an emblem for that,” he said. “The other big thing was that the deal wasn’t public so we had a public institution engaging in a private contract, by terms of the contract would be kept secret. For a public institution, that seems wrong to many students.”

The confidentiality clause was also the main point of contention at the AMS Council meeting in 1995 that approved the contract.

“Under this deal, Coke gets to decide what we know and what we don’t know,” said Jaggi Singh, a Student Environment Centre member who was at the meeting to protest the signing of the deal.

For instance, the public didn't know that students and faculty would have to drink 33.6 million Coke products in that 10-year period, and if that quota wasn’t met, the exclusivity agreement would be extended for two years with no benefit to UBC or the AMS.

This information would remain confidential until 2001 when The Ubyssey finally won its five-year legal case to access the contract. 

“When we saw the contract and see how many drinks, how many cans of Coke had to be sold, it was pretty astonishing,” said Duncan McHugh, The Ubyssey’s coordinating editor in 2001. “We didn’t get anywhere close to that so UBC and the AMS had to give them two years of exclusivity without getting paid because they hadn’t met the requirement of the contract. There was a lot of bitterness about the way that contract unfolded.”

As a result, when talks of a contract extension surfaced in 2006, the AMS Council passed an external policy advocating against UBC approving this deal, as well as an internal policy to strengthen its advocacy position.

Moving forward

Following this removal of the internal policy, the AMS no longer has a policy on the topic of exclusive cold beverage agreement. Its external policy has already expired in October 2009, according to AMS Archivist Sheldon Goldfarb.

When asked if this could lead to the AMS entering another exclusivity deal, Gattinger responded with “definitely not.” 

Meanwhile, UBC still currently has an agreement with Coca Cola that holds a certain amount of exclusivity, according to Director of UBC Food Services Colin Moore, where the university is allowed to buy other beverages as long as Coca Cola doesn’t have an equivalent. 

He noted that the university will also be entering a process to look for a new cold beverage agreement, since its contract with Coca Cola expires summer 2018. This process will not include the AMS due the difference in their business strategies and cold beverage purchasing approach. 

“We work with central purchasing at UBC, Athletics and Recreational, and likely UBC-O for this process,” said Moore. “It’s just the beginning … and what the future looks like beyond that is still to be determined.”

When reflecting on these new developments as someone who followed the controversial Coca Cola contract, McHugh stresses the importance of upholding transparency. 

“Students are going to drink soda, even though that seems to happen less and less, so I don’t necessarily have a problem with the university and the AMS making money off of that,” he said. “The thing I think is important is transparency and keeping the university and the AMS accountable when they are making these kinds of deals.”