March 10, 2010

New Committee Will Examine Social Impact of Univ. Licensing

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After pressure from Cornell’s chapter of Students Against Sweatshops, the University has established a permanent licensing committee — which will meet for the first time next week — in the hopes of improving working conditions for employees at companies that supply the University with products and apparel.

Yesterday, CSAS held a “Workout for Workers Rights” demonstration in front of Olin Library to further raise awareness of the plight of Nike employees in Honduras and the University’s contract with Nike.

The workers, who are reportedly owed 2.1 million dollars by a subcontractor working for Nike, are at the center of a national movement pressuring Nike to pay the money. The University’s new licensing committee, meanwhile, is set to begin considering licensing issues for companies accused of workers’ rights violations. “

Other members include students in labor rights groups on campus, a representative from the Cornell Store, and a representative from the Athletics department. On the agenda for next week’s meeting is a discussion of the relicensing of Russell Athletics.

Cornell was one of 120 universities to suspend product licenses for the company after Russell closed factories in Honduras that had unionized. Since then, Russell has reopened the factories and recognized the union.

“Russell has done a complete turn around,” Powers said. “They’ve done what we asked them to do, and I think we need to give the license back.” The Russell Athletics issue was resolved with an ad-hoc committee created for that specific situation. Now, the permanent committee will periodically hear reports from the Workers Rights Consortium and the Collegiate Licensing Program, national organizations that Cornell participates in, on the status of 150 different companies that supply Cornell products.

One of the issues that CSAS hopes to bring to the attention of the new committee is the status of Cornell’s license with Nike. CSAS says Honduran factories that supply Nike are refusing to pay employees severance and wages for hours already worked. The group’s campaign is part of a national movement against Nike for the company’s stance toward workers. Prof. Lance Compa, industrial and labor relations, said that student groups can exert a lot of leverage on Nike to change their practices.

If Cornell and other universities were to cancel the license, it could mean financial losses for Nike. “Selling universities clothes makes these companies millions of dollars a year,” Compa said. “That’s what makes them care.” Alex Bores ’13, president of CSAS and a representative on the new committee, said that the fight against Nike is going to be more challenging than the fight against Russell Athletics because Nike does not own the factories that supply it with apparel.

“They sell, they advertise … but they don’t make clothes,” Bores said. Though the subcontractors owe the workers a reported 2.1 million dollars, the national movement’s slogan explicates their goal to make Nike “Just Pay It.” The sum is relatively small for Nike, but the company does not want to set a precedent by taking responsibility for the workers employed by its subcontractors, Bores says. CSAS held its “Workout for Workers Rights” event yesterday, in which students exercised publicly to increase awareness of the issue.

Casey Sweeney ’13, president of Cornell Organization for Labor Action, said she didn’t have to walk around distributing quarter cards. Students were coming up to her and asking her for them. “It’s nice to have an event where students are interested and want to know what’s going on,” she said. CSAS also staged a “teach-in” in Ives Hall, where professors and group leaders gave speeches about the Nike issue.

Prof. Sarosh Kuruvilla, industrial and labor relations, encouraged students to get involved.

He said the pressure that forces companies to change comes from small groups of students, just two to three percent of students. “All of this pressure is coming from a small percentage of students in the U.S.,” he said. “Idealism is often left in college.”

Colleen Brill ’12 was one of the people who attended the teach-in. Though she said she might not have come without the reward of extra credit, she said she enjoyed the event and wants to learn more about the issue. She joined the CSAS listserv, something that was not required to earn the extra points. “I want to be kept up to date,” she said. “ I think this is an issue that’s going to grow at Cornell in the next couple months.”

Original Author: Juan Forrer