President David Skorton could cut Cornell’s ties with the Fair Labor Association if it does not agree to change its code of conduct to more closely align with the Unversity’s labor standards, according to a letter he sent to the organization Wednesday.
Cornell is partnered with the FLA to ensure that the products sold in the Cornell Store are manufactured in factories in which the workers are treated fairly, according to Mike Powers, senior director for University Communications, which oversees Cornell’s licensing program, but concerns about its conduct have arisen.
The letter cites three issues with the FLA’s code of conduct. These disparities are “truly serious” and “potentially warrant leaving” the organization if changes are not made, Powers said.
The administration requested that the FLA change its code of conduct to require companies to offer severance funding for workers employed at factories that suddenly shut down. It also requested that the voting structure of the FLA executive board be amended to avoid a system of voting that allows representatives affiliated with large companies to band together to vote down an action they do not agree with. The letter also requests that FLA monitors sent to conduct factory inspections meet with workers at offsite locations.
Skorton demands a response from the FLA by April 30, Powers said.
“What that reply will be is anybody’s guess. What we do next depends on their reply to us,” Powers said.
If the administration decides to disaffiliate from the FLA, the University will no longer lend its name to the FLA and will stop paying dues, according to Casey Sweeney ’13, Cornell’s regional organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops.
“We think if the University were to not disaffiliate on April 30 [if the FLA does not agree to change] we would be surprised and that would not be something that we would have expected given the meetings we have had [with the administration],” she said.
According to Powers, the “many, many issues” found with the FLA have been “distilled … down to three different things.”
Powers said that Skorton’s first demand of the FLA — that it would require, in its code of conduct, an addition that would require companies to distribute severance funding to workers if a factory closes –– deals with “the most basic of workers’ rights.”
“Factories all over the world close every year [almost] overnight,” he said. “And people show up the next day, padlocked; the owners are gone, all the money’s gone, all that’s left is the equipment.”
For Powers, the lack of a severance package is a “moral issue” that would alone justify the University to disaffiliate from the FLA.
“I don’t know how you can tell the world that you support worker rights if you don’t do something about making sure workers can get severance; to me, that’s a no brainer,” Powers said.
The second request proposed by the administration asks for a change in the voting structure of the FLA board, which is comprised of six representatives from companies, six university representatives, six NGO representatives and a chair.
“For things that are of substance, they use a system that requires a supermajority vote, which means that each of the three representative groups must vote in a majority,” Powers said. “This makes it possible for any of the three groups to block any action that they feel does not line up with their individual interests.”
The letter also calls for a change in location for interviews conducted by the monitors, which currently often take place in the factory or in factory-owned housing –– a fact that Powers said “quite often …. results in retaliation from management.”
“[The workers] don’t have anonymity, so management will retaliate and co-workers will sometimes turn against them,” Powers said. “So we’re asking that all visits with workers and questions for workers be done at off-site locales.”
Some students and faculty members said they were concerned that companies like Nike and Russell Athletics pay the FLA to cover up any abuses they are accused of committing because some employees from these companies also sit on FLA’s executive board.
“The FLA is basically the company that corporations call when they’re in trouble,” Sweeney said. “Because the FLA receives so much money from corporations, those big companies are their main priority over universities.”
Sweeney and Karen Li ’15, president of Cornell Students Against Sweatshops, said they have been expecting this sort of letter to be sent.
“It’s been almost two months since the commitment was made to the letter actually being sent, so that’s a little disappointing,” Li said.
Sweeney and Li both said they have met with Powers a few times since January. The week before classes started for the spring semester, they met with Powers, Skorton, Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73 and Vice President for University Communications Tommy Bruce.
“That’s where we got the commitment from Skorton that he would send this letter,” the two said in an email.
At their most recent meeting, Powers promised the letter would be sent before spring break.
Sweeney said she is excited that the administration has taken this step. Still she said she believes that the University should go further and disaffiliate with the FLA.
“Because of the way [the FLA] is funded and structured, we’re still continuing to push for disaffiliation,” she said.
Although he noted the FLA is a “vital organization” that “does some good work,” Powers also said that “because of the brand involvement, the suspicion [among students] has always been that the FLA is in the brands’ hit pocket.”
“There’s been discontent here since the day [the FLA] was founded,” he said.
However, the University has only been actively questioning the organization for about a year, according to Powers. He added that the communication between President Skorton and van Heerden has been “cordial.”
On March 13, the University Assembly passed a resolution “[recommending] the University cancel its affiliation with and financial support of the FLA until the FLA, once notified of the University’s concerns and expectations, corrects the policies and practices described above,” which included the three main issues Powers outlined. The University currently pays between $1,000 and $1,500 to the FLA from Cornell Store profits.
Melissa Lukasiewicz ’14, University Assembly chair and one of the resolution’s sponsors, said that if there are no visible efforts being made by the FLA to fix the enumerated problems, the University should disaffiliate and only continue to associate with the Worker Rights Consortium, a workers’ rights group that she said operates independently of corporations.
“We would like for the FLA to change their policies and practices to fix the problems that we see and the concerns that we have in the way that they operate,” she said. “If they don’t make corrections in a timely manner we are looking for the university to cancel its affiliation and financial support.”