Two More Campus Anti-Sweatshop Movement Victories

by Paul Garver

The anti-sweatshop movement on American campuses has chalked up two more victories in its battle to assist Honduran and Dominican workers in winning improved working conditions in the apparel industry.

On 26th July Nike announced that it would pay $1.54 million in compensation to 1800 workers who were denied legally required severance pay when two Nike subcontractors closed their Honduran plants in January 2009.

In addition, the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Knights Apparel, the leading supplier of college-logo apparel to U.S. universities, has agreed to pay the 120 workers at its factory in Alta Gracia, Dominican Republic, 350% of the average pay of the country’s apparel workers—and has allowed workers to create a union without interference.

Nike, still maintaining that it is not responsible for  ensuring that its subcontractors meet their legal obligations to workers, claims that the money is not for severance pay, but for a “worker relief fund,” health coverage and vocational training for workers fired by the sub-contractors.   But the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) know that Nike is not coughing up the money out of generosity or out of respect for any concept of “corporate social responsibility.” Nike had to react to a USAS pressure campaign under the slogan “Just Pay It” that led to the severance of Nike’s licensing agreement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the imminent threat that Cornell University would do the same after 1,100 students petitioned the university to end its contracts with Nike.  The WRC had provided the over 100 campuses it includes with a report finding that the two Nike subcontractors had failed to pay its workers the $2 million in severance owed under Honduran law.

On 19 July the AFL-CIO News blog reported that the WRC reached an agreement with Knights CEO Joseph Bozich last year to create a model apparel plant, which pays a living wage, is neutral in union elections and allows union organizers full access to the plant. WRC Executive Director Scott Nova called the agreement “a victory for the student activists and the sweatshop activists in the labor movement who have been advocating for better conditions in the apparel industry. This factory is a powerful symbol of what is possible.”

The workers have now formed a union and held the founding meeting in June 2010, with assistance from the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. AFL-CIO International Affairs Director Cathy Feingold, who had trained and worked with representatives from the Dominican local union, said:

Working people need to do everything we can to promote Alta Gracia products and make it a success. We should encourage colleges to order the T-shirts and sweatshirts, and support them through state and local procurement policies and generally spread the word.

The factory already has orders to make T-shirts and sweatshirts for bookstores at 400 American universities. The T-shirts will cost about $18 retail—the same as brands like Nike and Adidas. United Students Against Sweatshops plans to distribute fliers at college bookstores urging freshmen to buy the Alta Gracia shirts, whose tags will contain a WRC endorsement and the message: “Your purchase will change our lives.”

I reported on this blog in November 2009 the first significant victory of the American student movement against sweatshops, when Russell Athletic was forced to agree to rehire 1,200 Honduran workers who their jobs when their factory closed down in retaliation for their unionization.  The USAS campaign had persuaded 100 universities to sever or suspend their licensing agreements with Russell.

These three victories mark a new stage in what has been a prolonged but frustrating decades-long struggle by American students and labor unions to help Central American and Caribbean workers unionize and win better wages and working conditions.  Finally some crucial pieces of this struggle are falling into place, as American students and labor unions develop better cooperation, more effective tools and create organizations like the USAS and WRC that transcend the rapid ebbs and flows of earlier student activism.  It also has required the progressive makeover of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center during the last decade and a half into a genuine advocate for workers’ interests and international labor solidarity.   Of course anti-sweatshop campaigns on American campuses can do little more than help mitigate the difficult challenges faced by Central American and Caribbean workers in organizing their own unions in the face of corporate domination and corrupt governments.

But we should celebrate these victories and pay tribute to the student and labor activists who have worked so hard and so long to achieve them.

2 Responses

  1. Finally, hopefully we will hear more stories like this. Great job covering it. USAS is also doing a great job to spread awareness about sweatshops and labor abuse.

  2. […] rights.  Building upon recent victories by the campus-based movement against sweatshops, reported earlier on Talking Union, the professors are circulating the following open letter, inviting more faculty members to join […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: