As the afterglow of their success against Russell Athletic fades, University activists now face the prospect of dealing with what they view as a larger workers’ rights crisis with the corporate behemoth Nike.
In February 2009, relentless pressure from United Students Against Sweatshops forced Cornell to join nearly 100 universities across the country in boycotting Russell Athletic, after the apparel manufacturer allegedly closed one of its Honduran factories to prevent unionization. Nine months later, USAS groups celebrated a landmark victory when Russell decided to rehire the 1,200 Honduran workers who had lost their jobs.
Their campaign against Nike is just beginning. According to a press release issued Tuesday afternoon by Cornell’s chapter of Students Against Sweatshops, a new campaign dubbed, “Just Pay It,” has been initiated against the Nike Corporation for allegedly violating University code of conduct regulations at two of its apparel factories in Honduras. Following a meeting with University administrators, CSAS issued a statement condemning Nike and its subsidiary, the Haddad Group, for illegal wage practices following their closure of the Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex factories in January 2009.
The unionized factories, which predominantly produced goods for Nike, including University apparel, were shut down by Nike subcontractor Haddad for “economic reasons.” According to CSAS though, after Nike stopped sourcing from the Honduran factories, forcing them into liquidation, both Nike and Haddad refused to pay their workers approximately $2.1 of $2.5 million in severance pay legally mandated by the Honduran Government. For CSAS leaders, this refusal represents a breach of university clothing codes of conduct as well as the Designated Suppliers Program regulations that Cornell endorses.
“Nike is trying to skirt its obligations by claiming there are legal loopholes that excuse their behavior," Casey Sweeney, President of Cornell Organization for Labor Action, stated in the brief issued yesterday. "But both legally and morally, they are required to pay their workers."
Besides Nike and Haddad’s legal obligations in Honduras, which COLA and CSAS leaders assert are being ignored, student activists are lobbying for Cornell to adhere to DSP, a set of policies that both governs apparel procurement and sets standards for labor practices for licensees of university logos.
While DSP has not been officially approved by the US Department of Justice, according to Alex Bores '13, President of CSAS, it is “something that Cornell signed onto in principle in 2006.”
According to Bores, the Workers’ Rights Consortium, which conducts audits to ensure that workers are treated fairly, monitors factories belonging to companies like Nike .
“We used them [the WRC] on our behalf to investigate charges brought against companies and overseas factories,” Mike Powers, vice president for university communications, told The Sun last year. “Cornell is committed to respecting the rights of workers around the world and we expect the companies that are licensed to produce Cornell apparel to share that commitment.”
Bores said that Nike has consequently violated WRC and Cornell's code of conduct.
“Under Honduran law companies have to pay severance pay, but [the workers] only got money from the liquidation of the factory,” he said.
While student activists see many similarities between Nike and Russell Athletic, they are also quick to point out the differences between the two.
“The biggest difference is that Russell directly owned the factory where their violations occurred, whereas Nike is one-step removed by subcontractors,” CSAS member Bill Peterson ’10 said. “The unfortunate reality of apparel manufacturing is that sweatshops are often subcontracted. Nike denied that they were making Nike products there, yet they had huge Nike banners in the factories.”
This campaign may also prove more difficult than the campaign against Russell because Cornell is much more involved with Nike, which provides uniforms for athletic teams, than it was with Russell, Bores said.
"It’s a lot for the University to deal with, but if that’s what it takes to get justice for these workers then that’s what we’re going to push for,” Bores added.
Student activists hope to work together with Cornell to employ some of the same strategies used to influence Russell Athletics to adopt fairer labor practices.
“I think we’ll be able to get the workers paid,” Peterson said. “It’s going to be a really long campaign but I don’t see why not. With Russell we had to put pressure on them. We need to make [Nike] realize that this is something that’s important and that people will not stand for this. Ultimately, what influences their decisions is money.”