February 11, 2009

C.U. Store Considers Labor Violations

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Correction Appended

The ongoing battle between Russell Athletics and Honduran workers continues, and the hundreds of universities like Cornell that are sponsored by Russell are caught in the middle.
The issue — which dates back to October 2007 — started when Russell Athletics announced it would be closing Jerzees de Honduras, the only solely Russell-owned factory in Honduras. The controversy arose over the [img_assist|nid=34965|title=Threads|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]context of the closing: The factory was shut down after 750 of the 1800 workers announced the consolidation of a union on Oct. 5. The leaders of the Union, Moises Elias a Bovado, who was president, and Norma Estela Mejia Castellano, vice president of the union, have been touring campuses nationwide to make their cause heard, and authorities have been listening.
Russell representatives are scrambling to save face, at institutions throughout the country, especially at universities like the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Former Provost Biddy Martin, now the chancellor at Wisconsin-Madison, will allow her university’s contract with Russell to terminate in March. Especially at a time of economic crisis when companies can’t afford to lose clients, Russel is struggling to continue its contracts with universities.
The company claims there is considerable ambiguity in the case of the factory closing, and is backed up by a Fair Labor Association report. The movement against Russell was galvanized by a Workers’ Rights Consortium report released shortly after the announced closing, showing substantial evidence for the closing being a response to the union.
“Russell goods accounts for about 15 percent of our total clothing sales,” Gary Swisher, assistant director of merchandising for the Cornell Store, stated in an e-mail. “They are one of our top three vendors.”
Bavado and Castellano visited campus last week and spoke at a Cornell Organization for Labor Action meeting, claiming they had received death threats from upper level management following the announcement of the union. However, the union was necessary to fix numerous offenses by management. According to the WRC report, certain factory management personnel admitted that the closing was in part due to the union.
“I’ve been in regular contact with Russell since early December and we’ve also received their formal response to the WRC report,” Swisher said. “The company has insisted that the Jerzees de Honduras closing is based strictly on economic factors.”
The battle for workers’ rights is nothing new to University students, according to Jordan Wells ’08, an ILR graduate and former president of COLA. During his time at Cornell, Wells and his peers served as an impetus for the administration’s decision to take part in the Designated Supplier Program. The DSP enforces the University Code of Legal and Ethical Conduct, and protects the rights of workers’ in factories providing university apparel. The University Code of Legal and Ethical Conduct states, “Even where the law does not apply, applicable standards of ethics and morality relate to our activities and require the same diligence and attention to good conduct and citizenship.” A violation of the right to assemble would be in conflict with the code of ethics.
“I think the University can still do the right thing here,” Wells said. “The actions of [workers’ rights] is certainly not to boycott every company that has sweatshops, since that would be almost every company in the world. This is a company that has been openly flouting it.”
Wells also condemned the FLA for a “wimpy analysis of the situation.” In a lengthy report consisting of three separate investigations, the FLA concluded that no rights were breached by the factory. Due to the current economic climate, the FLA said it was fair that Russell could no longer afford to keep the factory open.
“The bottom line of the FLA audit is that the company’s decision to close the Jerzees de Honduras plant has ample economic justification,” Swisher said. “Even if we accept that conclusion as valid, I believe there is a strong case that workers’ rights were not respected at Jerzees de Honduras and that Russell must accept accountability.”
Current students involved with workers’ rights point to the plethora of major universities dropping ties with Russell as a bellwether for the University’s decision.
“If Russell Athletics is actually violating workers rights by allowing its Honduras factory to shut down for unionizing, we want Cornell to follow the lead of other major universities such as Georgetown and University of Pennsylvania and cut its ties with Russell,” said Gleb Dropkov ’12, a member of COLA.
“We want to bring public scrutiny to this issue and expedite its resolution so that these working people, whose lives revolved around jobs created by Russell Athletics, can get the justice they deserve.”
Despite the quick turn-around of many colleges to sever ties with Russell, University officials have given the company a chance to defend itself.
“We have been willing to hold off on a final decision to drop the line until giving them a fair hearing and learning of their plans to remediate or respond to these issues,” Swisher said. “We are also committed to purchasing licensed products from vendors who meet the standards of the code of conduct.”

This article incorrectly stated the names of the “Fair Labor Association” (FLA) and “Cornell Organization for Labor Action” (COLA).