February 13, 2019

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: An Invitation to President Pollack on Qatar

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To the Editor:

As student labor organizers involved with Cornell’s United Students Against Sweatshops chapter, we heartily welcomed The Sun’s Feb. 5 editorial on the decades-old discussion surrounding Cornell’s operation of a medical campus outside the capital city of Qatar. We hope to further contextualize the longstanding fight to secure a third-party investigation into working conditions at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, with an eye towards future concerted action. To do so, we must first touch on relevant aspects of this campus’s rich history of student-driven labor organizing.

At the turn of the millennium, the prolific USAS network mobilized to counter the influence of a Clinton-made organization, the Fair Labor Association, whose corporate ties clearly compromised its ability to independently monitor sweatshop conditions. USAS’s hundreds of student-led local chapters banded together in April 2000 to found the Worker Rights Consortium, the world’s first truly independent labor rights monitoring organization. Cornell’s very own USAS chapter played a role in this historic development, forging a close relationship with the WRC that lasts to this day.

Over the past two decades, the WRC has played a starring role in a great number of student-won labor victories on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. When Nike barred the WRC from entering its Bangladeshi factories to investigate reports of escalating worker abuses, several USAS locals heeded requests from affected workers to hold the multi-billion dollar sweatshop-profiteer to account. In Ithaca, Cornell students ran a protracted pressure campaign to force the cancellation of the university’s lucrative Nike contracts. After years of organizing, President Martha Pollack bowed to student pressure by cutting the Cornell Store’s Nike ties — sending a powerful message to the apparel-maker that institutions such as ours will not tolerate its systematic dismantlement of labor protections without repercussions.

Unsurprisingly, many of the students responsible for the Nike victory have also played large roles in Qatar organizing. And as The Sun’s editorial alluded to, painstaking efforts by both Amnesty International and USAS’s Cornell chapters to secure the truth about WCM-Q has been met with extraordinary administrative intransigence. That’s not to say we’ve won no victories in our fight for transparency surrounding Cornell’s secretive Qatar operations; successes range from gaining detailed insight into WCM-Q’s ties to the Qatar royal family to pressuring then-President Michael Kotlikoff to publicly lobby Qatar for the release of prisoner-of-conscience Mohammed al-Ajami — an action that played a pivotal role in al-Ajami’s eventual release. Given these past successes, we believe that the logical next phase of Qatar organizing on Cornell’s Ithaca campus is to revive the fight for a third-party investigation into WCM-Q’s labor practices.

As new voices join us in reiterating calls for WCM-Q transparency, we would like to make it clear that a third-party investigation is neither a speculation-fueled demand nor a faraway pipe dream. First, the International Trade Union Confederation’s 2014 reports of worker abuses at the Education City complex that houses WCM-Q is reason enough to believe that Cornell may be complicit in reprehensible labor practices. Second, the infrastructure for conducting such an investigation is literally already in place. The WRC network described above exists for the precise purpose of impartially documenting labor conditions in a variety of settings, from South Asian apparel factories to campuses that operate within the constraints of Qatar’s infamously cruel labor laws.

As members of the People’s Organizing Collective, USAS Local #3, we unconditionally offer to facilitate an initial conversation between our partners at WRC and Cornell’s administration. As President Pollack cements her vision of “One Cornell,” of a global university whose footprint reaches far beyond our quiet campus in a rural corner of upstate New York, she has a historic chance to ensure that this vision is materialized in keeping with the highest respect for worker and human rights.

Kataryna Restrepo ’21 The Peoples Organizing Collective: USAS Local 3
Daniel Bromberg ’20 The Peoples Organizing Collective: USAS Local 3
Christopher Hanna ’19 The Peoples Organizing Collective: USAS Local 3
Carlton Riley ’20 The Peoples Organizing Collective: USAS Local 3
Max Greenberg ’22 The Peoples Organizing Collective: USAS Local 3
Steve Tarcan ’20 The Peoples Organizing Collective: USAS Local 3
Sylvie Rohrbaugh ’22 The Peoples Organizing Collective: USAS Local 3
Delaney Ho ’21 The Peoples Organizing Collective: USAS Local 3