Big business the new target for US protest students

by Lauren Chambliss. Disruption that hit IMF is set to spread he warns

An unusual showdown between student activists and a giant US corporation with a French connection marks one of the first times the youth protests that have disrupted the annual gatherings of the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation have spread to the corporate world.

Hotels and restaurants giant Sodexho Marriott has been the subject of a six month campaign on US college campuses by students seeking to force it to sever ties with a private prisons company that does business in the US, Britain, France and Australia.

The students involved in the Prison Moratorium Project have links to the protest groups that have targeted meetings of the major global financial organisations, including the recent IMF conference in Prague.

Student protesters say they intend to broaden the new corporate campaign next year to include big banks, such as Citigroup, and other financial companies that support the prison industry by underwriting bonds for prison construction.

Sodexho Marriott is 48% owned by Sodexho Alliance, the Paris-based food service company that holds a 7% stake in Corrections Corporation of America, America's biggest private-prisons contractor. CCA has come under political fire for running several prisons with poorer conditions and higher rates of violence than State-run facilities.

The prison issue resonates with youth because they bear the brunt of America's 'get-tough-on-crime' policy that can lead to long periods of incarceration for relatively minor offences. At the same time, State money is siphoned from universities to pay for the ever-expanding prison population, according to Jason Zeidenberg of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The US recently passed the two million mark of Americans, mostly young and male, in the justice system.

The Prison Moratorium Project claimed a partial victory in the past few days when Sodexho Marriott posted an announcement on its website that it would divest its CCA holdings. CCA is currently in the middle of a restructuring and its stock is near an all-time low.

In a statement, Sodexho Alliance chairman Pierre Bellon did not provide a timetable for divestment but said it will occur after recovery plans have been carried out by new CCA management. 'We did not expect Sodexho to start making noises about capitulating so soon,' says Prison Moratorium Project head Kevin Pranis, who is funded in part by international financier George Soros' foundation, the Open Society Project. 'But they have not said when they will do it. We are only part way there.'

For the past six months, students protesting about private prisons held rallies and urged boycotts of Sodexho Marriott at about 50 of the 500 American college and university campuses on which the company operates student dining halls and food services.

Sodexho Marriott insists the protests did not hit the company financially but four universities where protests were organised either cancelled or did not renew contracts for food services, including New York State University at Albany, Gaucher College in Maryland, Evergreen College in Washington and James Madison University in Virginia, according to Pranis.

At EVERGREEN College in Washington, activists warned administrators that if they gave the contract to Sodexho they could expect a noisy reaction from the same students who took part in the World Trade Organisation demonstrations in nearby Seattle 18 months earlier.

Malka Fenyvesi, a student organiser for the Prison Moratorium Project had previously led hundreds of Evergreen students to the Seattle demonstrations.

Sodexho Marriott spokesman Leslie Aun said that executives have been frustrated by the protests, which the company believes were backed by funding from anti-private prisons coalitions, including trade unions that represent employees at rival, government-run prisons.

'This was a professional campaign,' says Aun. 'It was not an accidental uprising of unhappy students. We never pressured Sodexho Alliance to sell the CCA stake but we kept it informed about the protests.'

The student groups say Sodexho Alliance's promise to divest CCA in America is not enough. The groups also want the company to divest itself of the Corrections Corporation of Australia and UK Detention Services, an offshoot that provides prison services in Britain.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 24 October 2000