September 1, 2010

Cornell’s Considerable Clout

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After 21 months, two dropped contracts and several half-naked activist rallies, Nike has agreed to “Just Pay It,” granting laid-off Honduran workers a $1.5 million relief fund, vocational support and health-care. This decision was a victory not only for Cornell Students Against Sweatshops — the labor-supporting student group that lobbied the University to threaten to drop its athletic wear licensing contract with Nike. It is also a good example of how Cornell can use its considerable financial clout to influence the practices of the businesses with which it chooses to partner.According to the Workers Rights Consortium, which alerted Cornell and more than 100 other universities about the Honduran incident, this was the first time a major corporation acknowledged responsibility for a subcontractor’s misconduct.This latest battle over workers’ rights featured a new player — the Cornell Licensing Oversight Committee (LOC). Formed only last spring in the wake of the Russell Athletics labor controversy, this new committee started with a bang, taking on one of the most powerful sportswear corporations: Nike Inc. Since its inception, the LOC has been an important and effective administrative appendage. It allows the University to identify partners whose business practices fail to meet Cornell’s standards. And even more importantly, it allows Cornell to swiftly react to labor controversies — a luxury for such a massive institution.We commend the University for its careful but swift action on this issue, and CSAS and COLA for their excellent work bringing this issue to light. It is no easy task to change the University’s mind on issues where budgets and cost-savings are concerned, but well-organized student activism worked effectively in this case. The multi-faceted and pragmatic approach by CSAS and COLA put the appropriate amount of pressure on the University to change its licensing deal, but allowed plenty of leeway to ensure that the process was executed carefully.Three months after CSAS brought the Nike labor violation issue to the LOC, the committee signed off on a recommendation that led President David Skorton to threaten to let Cornell’s Nike contract expire at the end of this year if the sportswear giant did not resolve its labor disputes in Honduras.The only other school to react to this issue was the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which promptly dropped its contract with Nike. However, as the UW-M newspaper noted, “When UW-Madison made its move, Nike officials refused to comment on the situation. But in response to Cornell’s decision, Nike decided to issue a statement.”Nike’s decision to make reparations after Cornell’s response confirms the University’s role as an influential institution nation- and world-wide. In this case, it used that influence to enact social progress — we hope it continues that trend.