May 2, 2012

President Skorton Tells Activists to End ‘Hyperbolic Claims’

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Spurning a call from President David Skorton to stop its “demands for action” and “hyperbolic claims,”  a student group dedicated to achieving Cornell’s disaffiliation from the Fair Labor Association protested outside of Skorton’s office for two hours on Wednesday.

“When you issue ‘demands for action’ and make hyperbolic claims, it undermines the very relationship you, my administrative colleagues and I have worked so hard to establish,” Skorton wrote in a letter Monday to the Sweatfree Cornell Coalition that was obtained by The Sun. “I hope that you will agree that thoughtfulness and partnership … are the only ways together we will reach our shared goal: the protection of workers’ rights.”

Still, the SCC conducted a sit-in on Wednesday in Day Hall. Their mission: to convince Skorton to sever ties with the FLA, an organization that attempts to bring together multiple interested parties to improve working conditions and protect worker’s rights worldwide. The SCC claims the FLA’s  code of conduct does not align with the University’s labor standards.

“We’re asking the University why after a decade of the FLA silencing workers’ voices, we continue to pay the FLA and to lend our name to the organization,” said Casey Sweeney ’13, a member of CSAS.

On March 13, the University Assembly passed a resolution recommending that “the University cancel its affiliation with and financial support of the FLA until the FLA, once notified of the University’s concerns and expectations, corrects the policies and practices” that do not adhere to the University’s code of conduct for labor practices.

In response to concerns raised by the UA and the SCC, Skorton sent a letter on March 21 to Auret Van Heerden, president and chief executive officer of the FLA, in which he warned that “Cornell’s future affiliation with the FLA will be determined by the FLA’s willingness to change [three particular] policies and practices.”

Van Heerden issued a response on April 16 in which, for the most part, he counters Skorton’s three charges one by one.

In his letter to the FLA, for instance, Skorton requested that the organization require companies to  pay workers’ severances in the event of a factory closing.

In reply, van Heerden agreed that workers have the right to receive severance and defended the FLA’s Code of Conduct and Compliance Benchmarks, which  he said “include many provisions to protect workers facing termination.”

However, he said that although the FLA already requires that factories have severance funding in place and that the FLA’s affiliates are encouraged to also help workers become “reincorporated” in the job market, “we cannot mandate these for companies any more than a university could be required to compensate displaced workers if any of its licensees went out of business.”

According to Powers, severance funding is a problem because when factories close, the owners often disappear overnight or are not in a financial position to pay.

“This is the issue that’s going to get a lot of attention,” he said.

The second request outlined in Skorton’s letter asked that the FLA’s board of directors revise its current voting system for affiliated companies from a supermajority to a simple majority vote to prevent large corporations from stamping out FLA activity that threatens their own interests.

“These corporations will never approve [certain] changes because simply put they want the FLA there to whitewash their practices,” Walter-Warner said.

Van Heerden countered that the current system “makes it impossible for any one constituency to exert undue influence” and claimed that “no decision has ever been vetoed or forced through by any one group.”

Skorton also asked that during investigations into labor practices, workers be interviewed off-site rather than in the factory, noting that interviews conducted at worksites deprive the workers of anonymity and expose them to “potential acts of retaliation from management or co-workers.”

However, van Heerden defended on-site interviews as integral for “representative sampling,” which he said is “critical to ensuring that all voices are heard.” He added that prior to all interviews, management is informed that retaliation against workers will be “immediately addressed.”

In his letter to the SCC Monday, Skorton wrote that he will meet with administrators and faculty members to carefully consider the decision of whether to disaffiliate with the FLA over the next few weeks.

However, the SCC’s sit-in Wednesday reflected students’ continued frustration with the administration’s slow response.

“Our issue is that [Skorton] is not prioritizing this very urgent concern that we have,” COLA President Molly Beckhardt ’14 said.

While Skorton has not yet made an official decision on whether to disaffiliate with the FLA, “he will be consulting faculty and administrators who have some expertise in this area, and he’ll be issuing a response at some point,” said Mike Powers, senior director for University Communications.

Still, student activists expressed serious disappointment with what they see as inaction on the part of the University.

“We were under the impression that if the FLA’s response was inadequate that we would disaffiliate,” said Jake Walter-Warner ’12, a member of COLA. “[The FLA’s] letter, literally, indicated no willingness to change whatsoever and just justified the practices that they currently have.”

About an hour into the demonstration, Powers said Skorton agreed to meet with the students on May 14, at a time and location to be determined.

“We’re really grateful that President Skorton has agreed to meet with us,” Sweeney said. “That’s what we requested and why we’re here today.”

Original Author: Sylvia Rusnak