September 13, 2007

C.U. Continues ‘Sweat-Free’ Clothing Debate

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Just over two years have elapsed since student activists in the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA) and the Cornell chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (CSAS) began campaigning for the rights of workers who produce Cornell-logo clothing. Following last school year’s legal concerns over antitrust violations and a perceived shortage of participating universities, implementation of the national Designated Suppliers Program at Cornell has slowed, although some argue it has not come to a standstill.
DSP is currently supported by 37 universities nationwide, amongst them Cornell, Columbia and Georgetown. When and if implemented, the DSP requires officially licensed brands like Nike and Adidas to contract university apparel orders out to factories that grant their workers the rights to unionize and to earn a living wage.
Textile factories are not directly owned by brands — Reebok places an order in factories in a country and factory owners compete with one another to offer the cheapest possible production packages to the clothing corporations.
The Cornell administration has officially endorsed the principles behind the DSP since April of 2006; in recent months, the significance of this endorsement has become unclear, as those involved in the program’s implementation have stalled over what to do next.
According to Cornell Licensing Director Mike Powers, the administration’s representative in the Cornell DSP working group, concerns were raised last year by other DSP member universities that banding together collectively to make production demands on the clothing brands may risk breaking antitrust laws.
Cornell, in turn, wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in the spring of 2007, requesting a clearance on the issue.
“[We are asking:] is this business model in violation of antitrust regulations?” Powers said.
Though he and lawyers working with Cornell foresee no problems, Powers said they are waiting on a reply to decide the next move.
“We should know more by the October 18 DSP working group meeting,” he said.
Powers also said there is a shortage of interested universities needed to make the DSP more viable and referred to the scope of the project as “battling the basic laws of economics,” since raising working standards in a few factories means resisting the flow of their production to cheaper areas of production.
Students and professors involved in the project do not all agree on the Administration’s need for such reserve or caution before moving forward.
Former CSAS vice president and activist Jordan Wells ’07, who visited the Dominican Republic factory BJ&P in the spring of 2006 before it shut down, warned of the damage incurred by waiting idly by during any step in the implementation process, using the closing of BJ&B as an example.
“The important thing to draw from the [closing of BJ&B] is that it was unionized and upheld labor standards; it would have been a part of the DSP. The closure is a product of dalliance, on the part of the working group and of universities like Cornell, in implementing the program which would have ensured it continued business.”
After Nike — a brand responsible for a large portion of orders placed at BJ&B — pulled out, factory owner Yupoong intended on shutting down operations abruptly, without entering closing negotiations with its workers.
As a result of universities questioning Nike about the exit, Yupoong consented pay three months severance beyond what is mandated by Dominican law.
The ability to exact results before the DSP has gone into effect is part of Wells’ and others’ arguments for continued action while full implementation is stalled.
“As we wait for this letter [from the DOJ], as we wait for other schools to jump on board, [Cornell] can take action … We can do things similar to what we did for workers at BJ&B after it closed, but we can do it more proactively. We also have other DSP factories that should be considered under threat as Nike [and other brands’] contractors try to undermine the implementation process … We can require brands like Nike to make a choice: do they want to publicly stand in the way of efforts to achieve sweat-free working environments?”
As for awaiting the “go-ahead” from the DOJ, Prof. Lance Compa, ILR, who worked with the DSP working group last year, does not think there will be a timely reaction.
“I am a strong supporter of the DSP, and I don’t think the antitrust laws should be a problem … But one real problem is that the Department of Justice is by all accounts dysfunctional right now. With all the complications, firings — such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, of course — and delays left and right, I’m not even certain if Cornell will be getting a timely reply back.”
Compa does not consider the economics behind implementing the DSP as troubling as Powers.
For Compa, accommodating to the DSP is “ both ‘the right thing to do’ and favorable from an economic standpoint [for clothing companies]. [Organized, healthy workers] foster stability and productivity in the workplace, which are economic advantages.”
CSAS President Ben Traslaziña ’09 said, “right now, progress is slow.” He reports that recent efforts at Cornell have focused on recruiting more universities to the cause and on showing interested schools how to gain the administrative endorsement of the DSP.
On the administrative end, Powers assured that Cornell is, despite delays, as dedicated as ever to realizing the DSP.
“I would say the University’s commitment [to implementation] is 100 percent,” said Powers, expressing hopes of success but not necessarily a timely one.
In the meantime, the day when students will walk into the Cornell Store to buy officially “sweat-free” hoodies and sweatpants remains a real but foggy hope, with no solid guesses for when such a date will be realized.