The New Era Cap Company, maker of Cornell baseball hats, has dropped the Big Red from their list of licensees amidst a troublesome year for the Derby, N.Y. based firm, that has grasped the attention of numerous worker rights organizations.
The drop, however, was not a response to Cornell Students Against Sweatshops’ (CSAS) active stance against the 82-year-old company’s treatment of workers, that has allegedly resulted in high numbers of on-the-job injuries, but rather a matter of a low sales volume.
“We have a minimum amount of income that has to be met on all such sales,” said John DeWaal, New Era’s director of marketing. “And in this case it wasn’t.”
Despite ending ties with a total of ten schools, including sports powerhouses, University of North Carolina, and Duke University, the cap makers are likely to continue to receive pressure from organizations such as CSAS and the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA). CSAS and COLA have been actively involved in pressing New Era to alter their treatment of Derby workers since last October, following a Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) report that brought the poor working conditions to light.
“Just because they are no longer affiliated with our University, does not mean we will no longer pursue our interest in the situation,” said Andres Blanco, CSAS president.
The drop comes at a time that only further highlights New Era’s questionable treatment of employees.
“New Era has not responded in a constructive way [to the situation],” said Robert Reese, director of budget, human resources and product licensing for Cornell.
A spokesperson for New Era notes that it was a lack of communication with the WRC that led to a worker strike in Derby last July. The result was an audit and subsequent attention from other such organizations, and in turn, the media.
“New Era has always been a member of the Fair Labor Association,” said Tad Segal, a public relations consultant. “There was some confusion over whether or not we needed to join the WRC, as we thought the FLA would take care of things. In light of this, we have realized otherwise.”
“This is not a sweatshop or a union-busting company,” Segal said. “But failure to open doors to the WRC has led to the current [allegations].”
New Era called for a meeting to be held April 16 with the WRC, to discuss health and safety, the working environment and to have specific areas in need of improvement pointed out. In addition to the WRC, a number of University officials have been invited to the meeting, following pressure from their respective Students Against Sweatshops organizations.
“Until the meeting, we do not know if [New Era’s] willingness to meet shows a change in the company’s posture by taking a cooperative approach,” Reese said.
Curiosity over New Era’s stance has grown because this is their first response to the WRC.
According to an e-mail sent out by WRC Executive Director Scott Nova to affiliate schools, “New Era has still not satisfied the request for information and documents outlined in the WRC report issued seven months ago, has not cooperated in other ways with the WRC’s investigative work, and has not responded in a constructive way to the serious concerns that have been raised about the company’s labor practices,”
Nevertheless, Segal points out that the Derby factory has in the past cooperated with FLA audits and made changes accordingly, but states “there is always room for improvement.”
Such cooperation with the WRC remains to be seen, but the upcoming meeting hints at a potentially constructive outcome.
“The whole idea behind what the WRC and the Students Against Sweatshops are doing is an excellent one,” Segal said.
The biggest change New Era has implemented in recent years was a $3 million expenditure to take the repetition factor out of machine operating.
“We are seen as innovators in the apparel industry in this respect,” Segal adds.
Regardless of New Era’s good intentions, a substantial number of their licensees are no longer with them. Ten schools have not, or will not, renew their license with New Era including the University of North Carolina, Duke University, Georgetown University, and George Washington University. Unlike Cornell, these schools made an active decision to end their ties.
“We suspect it comes from [the WRC situation],” DeWaal said. “But that is best coming from the schools themselves.” All but George Washington University are members of the WRC as of March 20.
As for Cornell Baseball, the team will wear New Era caps for the remainder of the year. But with their focus set on a winning season, the attention around what they have on their heads has passed many of them by.
“To be honest, I really haven’t heard anything about the whole thing,” pitcher Tad Bardenwerper ’05 said. “It hasn’t been brought up, to my knowledge.”
New Era representatives aim to resolve any curiosity on the situation at the question and answer session and tour of the Derby facility on April 16.
“We have a good story to tell,” Segal said. “We just haven’t told it yet.”
Archived article by Tom Britton