Liveblogging the EV3 Town Hall Discussion
At 12:00 noon on Wednesday February 16th, Interim Dean Mark Seasons held a town hall meeting to discuss developments in issues that affect the Faculty of Environment. I live-tweeted the event, but here is a more detailed (and structured) account of what happened.
People starting filling up the empty seats in the EV1 courtyard at around 11:45, but not everyone was there for the Town Hall. Most people were eating lunch or working on their assignments, oblivious to the Town Hall meeting about to take place. This turnout was a marked departure from the last town hall I attended (regarding changes to the Environment degree programs), when the room was filled to the brim with concerned students.
Flyers were strewn around the courtyard, highlighting Howard Schultz’s connection with pro-Israeli political groups. The message was basically that buying Starbucks coffee contributes to the occupation of Palestine and the egregious human rights abuses that the Palestinian people suffer. The flyers reminded me of Bogdan Caradima’s opinion peice that appeared in the Imprint a couple weeks ago.
Three issues were on the agenda: space allocation for researchers and grad students, the proposed Starbucks location in EV3, and details of the EV3 building itself. Mark Seasons tackled space allocation first, saying “space is a big political issue for us, internally.” A space committee will be formed with representatives from undergrad and grad students to allocate the scarce space fairly. The final decision on space allocation stays with the Dean though.
There was no further debate on space allocation, so we moved on to Starbucks. UW Food Services is in the process of hammering out an agreement with Starbucks. However, Starbucks is taking issue with a couple clauses regarding competition. It doesn’t want anyone else selling food in EV3, and is stalling negotiations. Apparently it is normal for large corporations like Starbucks to have non-compete clauses in their agreements with institutions.
Because of this rigmarole, UW Food services is looking for alternatives to Starbucks. Which is shocking to hear, because we were led to believe months ago that the selection committee had done its job and Starbucks won the contract. Other options are now being considered. One suggestion is to have a cafe similar to the Eco Fresh fairtrade cafe in the accounting building. However, such a cafe would compete directly with ESS coffeeshop. Mark Seasons is clear on this point: ”The bottom line is, we don’t want to compromise the ESS coffeeshop viability.”
At this point, debate from the pro-Palestinian lobby starts to heat up. Seasons understands their opposition to Howard Schultz, but sees it as a separate issue from Starbucks’ corporate policy. “Do you hold CEOs accountable for how they spend their own money?” He goes on to explain that all corporations come with some political baggage.
The concerns about Starbucks’ implicit affiliation with Israel persist. The pro-Palestinian attendees say that by boycotting Starbucks, we can encourage corporate policy changes and prevent Starbucks’ profit from being funnelled to human rights abusers.
Seasons reiterates that we can find fault with all corporate franchises. “If we think American companies are ghastly imperialists rampaging around the world, how do we deal with American companies? The bottom line is that people will choose what they want to consume.” Basically, if you don’t agree with Starbucks’ involvement with Israel, don’t buy from there. “There are different constituencies that I have to listen to,” says Seasons. “I’m not going to roll over and concede to special interest groups, because that’s no way to run an administration.”
The pro-Palestinian attendees continued to push for a Starbucks boycott: “Think about the added value at the end of stopping this occupation,” said one. Another added, “If the Faculty accepts Starbucks, we are showing our support for oppressive regimes.”
So far, the discussion has been a back-and forth between the pro-palestinian attendees and Seasons. He explains again that the Israeli issue is not about Starbucks corporate policy, but about the private investment of its CEO. “If Howard Schultz sold his shares, would you still oppose Starbucks?” Seasons contends that the issue is not with the corporation as a whole. Furthermore,”we don’t want to be seen as anti-corporate, because the University needs corporate money to survive.”
Finally, some counter-debate from another attendee, who was involved with the Food Services selection committee. He pointed out that a less environmentally sustainable franchise like Second Cup or Timothy’s would cause more of an uproar with the Faculty of Environment. The truth is, Starbucks has the best enviromental record of any major coffee chain. And environmental sustainability is, by definition, a core value of this faculty.
It’s good to see the debate move away from the Israel/Palestine issue. Another attendee says that Starbucks has created their own fair trade label that competes with established fairtrade-organic standards, so there are ethical concerns with this kind of smokescreen. We shouldn’t just take Starbucks at its word that it’s doing a good job.
Others have mentioned that we shouldn’t even be considering a corporate franchise if we want to stay true to the values of environmentalism. But painful as it is, Starbucks is the best option right now. We need a food outlet ready to go by September. Another independent coffeeshop would put the ESS coffeeshop out of business. And there is no better alternative as of yet. That’s why Mark Seasons has ordered a broader search for alternative food outlets.
The discussion moves on to the negotiations. Food Services tried to get the EV3 Starbucks to serve exclusively fair trade products. Starbucks has promised that they will always have a fair trade option, but not exclusively. For example, the espresso beans that they use for North America are not fair trade, and neither is their signature coffee. But Starbucks refuses not to sell those products. Other concessions like using china dishes and implementing a composting system were accepted by Starbucks. As it stands, 40% of the product line will be fair trade.
A GLOW director who was following my updates on Twitter asked for me to put forth a question about the EV3 building itself. We had been talking about Starbucks for the better part of an hour and I was glad to introduce a new topic. The question was whether or not EV3 would include gender-neutral bathrooms. This is a huge issue for the transgender community, and one that is extremely important in light of the proposed changes to Canada’s Human Rights Act to include explicit protection against discrimination of transgender and transsexual people. Mark Seasons replied that EV3 will not have gender neutral bathrooms, nor is it possible to put it on the negotiating table “at this stage”.
After some redundant debate about Israel-Palestine, one executive from the ESS coffeeshop pointed out that while there are human rights concerns about Starbucks’ support for Israel, most people “won’t have it on their radar” and just think that the coffee tastes good. Similarly, Seasons summed up the feelings of a large chunk of the people in attendance by stating that ”this has become a divisive issue that is taking up more time than it’s worth.”
We were almost out of time when another issue was raised about the Starbucks negotiations: do we even need more coffee shops? How about actual food outlets? Come to think of it, I’d much rather a Booster Juice or pita shop or sushi bar than another coffeeshop in EV3. We already have the ESS coffeeshop, multiple Tim Horton’s, and all the other faculty-run coffeeshops on campus. Why not try something different? Seasons replied that UW Food Services thinks that the Starbucks is viable, and that it’ll do a lot of business seeing as it’s right on Ring Road and lots of people will be walking through the building to and from the Colleges. However, Seasons said he would consider broadening the search for alternative establishments so it’s more than just coffeeshops.
At 1:15 PM, Mark Seasons adjourned the meeting. “I’m hungry, so I’m going to leave.” It’s a pity he can’t go to a sushi bar in EV3 to have his lunch. Hopefully that’ll change.Sam Nabi