April 12, 2010

UW-Madison Cancels Nike Contract; C.U. Labor Activists Hope Univ. Will Follow Suit

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The University of Wisconsin-Madison cancelled its licensing agreement with Nike Inc. on Apr. 9, becoming the first university to respond directly to the company’s recent labor violations in Honduras. According to Chancellor Biddy Martin, former provost of Cornell, Nike did not adequately support Honduran workers after two factories shut down abruptly in Jan. 2009.

While Nike did not own the factories, located in Chomala and San Pedro Sula, it hired them as suppliers to produce its apparel.

At their closing, Nike owed workers $2.6 million in severance payments under Honduran law, according to USA Today.  Nike has offered to provide workers with job training and priority jobs at nearby factories, but the WRC does not think this is enough.

In its most recent report, the WRC described Nike’s response as insufficient: approximately 1,800 workers are still owed $2.2 million.  Most of these workers do not have jobs and many need food and money.

Anti-sweatshop activists hope Wisconsin’s step will inspire labor-conscious campuses across the country.  Indeed, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and Cornell Students Against Sweatshops hope Cornell will follow Wisconsin’s lead.

“It’s incredible that Wisconsin accomplished their campaign,” said Casey Sweeney ’10, president of COLA.  “I know for many COLA and CSAS members, this is our goal — this is what we want.”

Not everyone is joining Sweeney in her enthusiasm.  For one, Nike responded in a press release that they were disappointed”  with Wisconsin’s decision.

“I think it’s a huge deal for a major university to cut a contract.  Nike seems to be taking it as a hair off its back,” Sweeney said.

In addition, Nike continues to deny responsibility for the Honduran workers.

“While legally Nike is not responsible, under Cornell’s Code of Conduct, it is,” said Fil Eden ’10, former president of COLA.

Eden refers to Cornell’s Code of Conduct, which stipulates that the companies, such as Nike, are responsible for workers’ conditions where apparel is produced.  Specifically, the Designated Suppliers Program, which Cornell signed in 2006, updated the code to include violations made by subcontractors.

While Nike does not technically own the two factories, Cornell’s Code of Conduct holds it responsible for the factories subcontracted under it.

Despite Wisconsin’s decision this weekend, such a dramatic step is not on the immediate horizon for Cornell.  Currently, Cornell has two contracts with Nike: Nike makes Cornell’s sports uniforms and sources the Cornell Store.  Instead of cutting the University’s contracts with Nike altogether, the Cornell Licensing Oversight Committee is considering stopping Nike orders in favor for more from Russell.

COLA and CSAS want to learn from students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they said.  Connected through the United Students Against Sweatshops, the national organization of which CSAS is a part, Cornell activists hope to share tactics and strategies.

“The University of Wisconsin-Madison took the stance it should as an institution of higher learning,” Eden said, “It set a precedent for universities across the country.”

Original Author: Margo Cohen Ristorucci