May 2, 2010

Setting High Standards

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On Thursday, the University Licensing Oversight Committee will meet to decide whether or not Cornell should continue its current relationship with Nike, given the company’s mistreatment of their workers in Honduras. The committee should end all of Cornell’s contracts with Nike until the company improves its labor practices in Honduras — where $2.2 million worth of pension payments are currently being withheld from employees by the sporting goods giant. Cornell, and other universities across the country, are in a unique position that can influence the policies and practices of companies like Nike, and improve the conditions of workers globally.

We commend the actions of University of Wisconsin which, under the leadership of Chancellor Biddy Martin (former provost at Cornell), ended its contract with Nike last week. By following Wisconsin’s example, Cornell and other universities will send a powerful message to all companies with unfair labor practices. Profit-driven corporations such as Nike will only change the way they do business when it makes financial sense to do so — if Cornell and its peer institutions chose to end their relationships with Nike, it would not only make a strong public statement, but would hit the corporation in the only place that truly hurts, the wallet.

Some in the Cornell community have been quick to show Day Hall their distaste for the University’s contract with Nike, with student groups such as the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and the Cornell Students Against Sweatshops organizing a rally on Ho Plaza this afternoon. The rally is another chance for the community to make a statement about what types of businesses Cornell should be dealing with. Regardless of one’s opinions on U.S. corporation’s use of cheap labor in developing nations, it is clear that any business who commits such an egregious contract violation (as Nike did) should not having a working relationship with our University.

This type of action has already proven to be successful. Last February, Cornell was one of many universities to end its ties with Russell Athletics, which had violated labor laws in Honduras. The financial and media pressure created by the large number of universities that severed ties with Russell forced the company to make changes to its labor practices. A month after Cornell ended its contract with Russell, the company announced it would rehire the 1,200 workers fired after they attempted to form a union, and recognize the union itself. The University’s swift action was commendable, but less encouraging is the fact that these issues seem to continually arise. Granted, Nike and Russell are two ubiquitous apparel suppliers. But, Cornell still could, and should, do a better job of looking into the business practices of the companies with which it contracts, to ensure that they are up to the standards the University sets for itself.

By severing ties with Nike, Cornell can take another step in improving the quality of life for millions of laborers around the globe. While the incident at hand is only one of many harmful and illegal labor practices that occur, addressing it sends a strong message about the University’s commitment to labor standards and sets a precedent for Nike and other companies.