August 26, 2010

Nike Bows to University Pressure on Labor Conditions

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After Cornell, following the University of Wisconsin, threatened to not renew its licensing contract with Nike, the apparel giant agreed to create a $1.5 million relief fund — along with job training programs and a year of health-care — for laid off employees of Nike sub-contractors Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex.

According to Licensing Oversight Committee Chairman and Director of Periodicals for University Communications Mike Powers, the relief fund has “resolved the issue,” and Cornell will renew its contract with Nike.

Nike’s decision marked the end of Cornell Students Against Sweatshop’s “Just Pay It” campaign — the organization’s second successful attempt to pressure a corporation into resolving worker disputes in under a year.

CSAS President Alex Bores ’13 said that Nike’s actions constituted the “first time in history that an apparel corporation has taken responsibility for its subcontractors.”  Bores described this as a “really big win for workers around the world,” since many industries have “used subcontracting…to not be responsible” for labor malpractice and their other financial obligations.

CSAS, aided by the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, was first involved in a successful campaign to get Russell Athletics to rehire 1,200 Honduran workers last November after nearly 100 universities — including Cornell — severed their contracts with their clothing manufacturer.

After Russell rehired its workers, Cornell established the LOC — which promptly, and successfully, urged President Skorton to terminate Cornell’s Nike contract.

Skorton gave Nike until the end of this year to make “significant progress” in its negotiations with union representatives.

Powers called Nike’s actions “a great thing to do,” and said that Cornell plans to renew its license with Nike, which they would have otherwise let expire.

Powers said that Nike’s decision has helped establish Cornell as “leader” on sweatshop contracting issues and “paying attention to what our licensees are doing.”

Former International Campaigns Coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops, of which CSAS is a  member group, Rod Palmquist called the victory “unprecedented” and “historic,” stressing that roughly 1,800 workers would benefit from “Cornell standing up for anti-sweatshop policies.”

He added that “Cornell has made a difference in lives of thousands of workers,” and that, now, “any worker can say, ‘if we struggle hard enough and work with students, [we] can beat the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world.’”

For its “Just Pay It” campaign, CSAS and Bores were nominated for an award given by the American Labor Museum for “the efforts of an individual or organization who fights for social justice,” according to an e-mail from ALM Director Angelica Santomauro.

Bores — who has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post — said that he and CSAS were “very satisfied” with Nike’s actions.

There are “no lingering doubts” over the case with Nike, said CSAS Treasurer Gleb Drobkov ’12.  “Every single demand was met, [and the] USAS council declared complete victory.”

The victory “shows the amount of power students really do have,” said COLA President Casey Sweeney ’13.

Gary Swisher, licensing oversight committee member and deputy director of the Cornell Store, joined the celebration, saying he’s “delighted” that Nike reached an agreement with the union representatives and that Cornell “did the right thing.”

The LOC and CSAS now turn their eyes to Knights Apparel’s Altagracia Factory, a “high-minded experiment” in response to “appeals from myriad university officials and student activists” to create higher-paying factory jobs, according to The New York Times.

Altagracia will pay workers a “calculated living wage … that will allow people to live in decent houses, send their kids to school,” Powers said. The Cornell Store has ordered Altagracia apparel, so Powers “really hopes” USAS and the Cornell Labor Action Organization can “educate the Cornell community on why it’s important to support this particular brand of clothing.”

Bores said that CSAS is “coming up with a campaign” for the Altagracia apparel now, and that the organization also plans to help COLA in its work over a strike at a Williamson Mott plant.

CSAS hopes it will continue to expand the size and scope of its operation.  Drobkov said that the organization’s first meeting this year had four times as many people as expected.

“We never thought that [we] students could make this decision happen so quickly,” Drobkov said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated one of the titles of Mike Powers. He is director of periodicals in University Communications.

Original Author: Jeff Stein