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November 19, 2015

COLA Contests Cornell’s Nike Business Ties

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The Cornell Organization for Labor Action delivered a letter to President Elizabeth Garrett Thursday demanding an end to Cornell’s contract with the Nike brand due to alleged sweatshop labor conditions in Nike factories.

Nike recently refused to allow the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor watchdog, to inspect its factories, violating Cornell University’s contract with Nike, according to COLA’s letter.

“This stands directly and explicitly in contrast with our contract with Nike,” said Alice Rayner ’19, a member of COLA. “The fact is that we are committed to being affiliated with Nike as long as they uphold the Workers Rights Consortium’s standards, and they’re not doing that, so we are not able to stay in contact with them.”

COLA members enter Day Hall to deliver a letter demanding Cornell end its Nike contracts.

COLA members enter Day Hall to deliver a letter demanding Cornell end its Nike contracts. (Varun Hedge / Sun Staff Photographer)

The letter also emphasized the importance of allowing the Workers Rights Consortium access to Nike factories, alluding to Nike’s history of tenuous labor practices in its overseas facilities.

“We know Nike has a long track record of labor violations and, like any brand we contract with, Nike cannot be trusted to voluntarily monitor themselves with any credibility,” the letter reads. “Without [Workers Right Consortium] inspections we have no way of confirming that Cornell apparel produced by Nike is being manufactured under conditions where workers’ basic rights are being respected.”

Rayner said she believes that Garrett is likely to cooperate with COLA on these issues, in accordance with her past statements affirming the rights of workers.

“President Garrett upholds this supposed rhetoric of being radical and progressive and caring about the way that we treat our workers,” Rayner said. “We hope that especially alongside the other schools that are holding their administrations accountable that we’ll see some direct action.”

A member of COLA hands over a letter enumerating the group's demands concerning Cornell's business involvement with Nike.

A member of COLA hands over a letter enumerating the group’s demands concerning Cornell’s business involvement with Nike. (Varun Hedge / Sun Staff Photographer)

The members said they are optimistic that these issues will eventually be addressed. However, they acknowledged that it may take time before the University is convinced to act.

“What we’re hoping to happen is that the University can put some direct pressure on the brand Nike to open up its factories and to honor its commitment to the Workers Right Consortium while demonstrating its commitment to workers’ rights in the brand and on our campus,” said Deepa Saharia ’18, another COLA member. “However, with the way that University processes work, there’s the potential that any movement will be slower than what we’re hoping.”

Pointing to Cornell’s history of cutting ties with apparel brands that failed to uphold labor standards, COLA members said they believe actions against Nike align with University values.

“We were among the first universities to cut Nike’s contract the last time there were these types of issues. We were also the first to cut Adidas’,” said Michael Ferrer ’16, a member of COLA. “We have a history of holding companies accountable for these kinds of abuse, so hopefully the administration will take that into account.”

COLA members read their letter aloud, speaking about Nike's unsupervised labor practices and asking that Cornell end its contracts with the company.

COLA members read their letter aloud, speaking about Nike’s unsupervised labor practices and asking that Cornell end its contracts with the company. (Varun Hedge / Sun Staff Photographer)

All members present at the letter drop agreed that it is important that the University take swift action in response to Nike’s actions.

“The workers need a voice. When they’re being exploited and their basic human rights aren’t being met, we as consumers have the power to stop that and it’s so important that we take advantage of that,” said Michelle Onder ’19, a COLA member. “We need to give [companies] a financial motivation to uphold human rights.”

The letter delivery is part of a national day of action organized by an organization called United States Against Sweatshops, according to COLA members. COLA is one of over 30 student groups throughout the country protesting Nike.