February 23, 2009

C.U. Severs Ties With Russell

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Citing anti-union labor practices, the University announced Friday that it will join a growing list of schools who are terminating business relations with Russell Athletics, which currently manufactures Cornell apparel.
The decision, effective March 31, comes after investigations conducted by the Fair Labor Association and the Worker’s Rights Consortium into Jerzees de Honduras, a Honduran textile factory owned by Russell Athletics, revealed that the factory had been closed because its workers attempted to unionize.
“Russell’s actions in this case are a clear violation of the codes of conduct that Cornell licensees agree to follow when they become licensed,” Mike Powers, director of operations for Cornell University Communications, said in a statement. “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.”
“We used them on our behalf to investigate charges brought against companies and overseas factories. In this particular case, they both came to the conclusion that while economic concerns may have played a part in closing of the factory, it was clear that an anti-union bias also played a significant role,” he said, “Based on that we can say that they are in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct that all Cornell licensees agree to abide by.”
The decision was reached after organizations on campus, specifically the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and Cornell Students Against Sweatshops, combined forces to launch a campaign promoting worker’s rights. The organizations became involved after speaking with workers from the factory and learning about their situation.
“This is a classic example of how, when workers decide to organize for better wages and better benefits, the management decides to close down the factory or really shut down all efforts by the workers,” said Marlene Ramos ‘09, former president of COLA.
“We had spoken with the workers back in October when this happened so we decided to take on the issue. It was interesting because management of Jerzees de Honduras had initially composed the three stage factory closure starting in December and ending in April. As soon as it was known that we were getting involved, they changed their minds and decided to close down by the end of January,” Ramos said.
COLA was able to bring two workers from the factory, Moises Elias a Bovado, the president of the workers union, and Norma Estela Mejia Castellano, vice president of the failed union, to the campus in order to find support from students. They described the unsanitary working conditions of the factory and the poor treatment they received from management.
“We mobilized very quickly and were able to bring two workers to our campuses … It was very exciting. The workers also met with Mike Powers, V.P. of communications, and they talked it over and Mike Powers was able to relay that information to the rest of the decision makers,” Ramos said.
This is not the first time that COLA and CSAS have raised awareness about workers’ rights overseas. Due to their efforts in 2006, Cornell affirmed the standards of the WRC and has “become committed to respecting the rights of workers around the world,” Powers said.
“The reason that Cornell adopted the standards of the WRC is because of the campaign COLA and CSAS launched in 2006. If it wasn’t for that, there would have been no legal avenue to cut the contract,” said Fil Eden ’10, treasurer of CSAS.
Severing ties with Russell Athletics, especially in light of the current economic crisis, will have some effects on the University. According to Gary Swisher, deputy director of the Cornell Store, Russell products make up 15 percent of the store’s apparel sales annually.
“The campus store will be affected. They do about a half million dollars in sales of Russell merchandise … They are stopping Russell orders immediately, selling the rest of the merchandise they have now and, then, they will find a replacement vendor. We also get royalties of sales outside the campus from other stores, but because Cornell does not get royalties from merchandise sold in Tompkins County, we don’t make a whole lot of money there,” Powers said.
In deciding to cut ties with Russell, Cornell is conforming to a trend among other American universities.
“Some Universities, Columbia, Wisconsin, Houston, Georgetown, Miami, Rutgers [and] Penn State have already decided to not renew relations with Russell. Some have just decided to end it before the contract is up. There are a number of other universities who are in the same position we are in … You’ll see this happening more; I think it will be a snowball effect,” Powers said.
Members of COLA and CSAS expressed their approval of Cornell’s decision to terminate their contract.
“We are very ecstatic that Cornell severed the contract with Russell Athletics. It was a move required of Cornell University. We are now, I believe, the 11th university to cut the contract. I think it was properly handled and I think it serves as a lesson for other corporations to really reconsider closing down a factory for their workers’ associational rights,” Ramos said.
The two organizations, COLA and CSAS, will continue to work on this case and find a way to either secure the re-opening of the factory or to obtain compensation for the 1,800 workers who lost their jobs.
“We are going to continue on with efforts to reopen the factory, if that will be impossible for Russell Athletic to do then we will work to make sure the workers who lost their jobs will receive a decent package. We welcome all of the Cornell community to join our efforts,” Ramos said.
Russell Athletics has announced their formation of a Corporate Social Responsibility Improvement Process to make revisions to its stance on worker rights. Members of COLA and CSAS stressed the monumental success of the workers in their efforts to raise awareness about sweatshops.
“It is really a victory of the workers. The workers were organizing for months before this campaign initiated. Russell Athletics, even to this day, refuses to acknowledge that the closing of the factory was because of the workers’ motivation to form a union,”