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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jul 28, 2010, 12:39 pm

Will Sweatshop Activists’ Big Victory Over Nike Trigger Broader Industry Reforms?

BY Micah Uetricht

With the memory of a previous victory over a multinational garment manufacturer still fresh in their minds, student labor activists and Honduran workers are celebrating what they say is another major win -- this one against industry giant Nike.

In 2009, Nike shut down two subcontractor plants in Honduras, leaving 1,800 workers without jobs. Under Honduran labor law, the workers were owed severance pay, to the tune of several million dollars. But Nike indicated it had no intention of paying.

Student activists with United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) were no strangers to labor disputes over Honduran factory closures. Also last year, they picked a fight with Russell Athletic, another major global garment manufacturer, over alleged unionbusting in Honduras after the company shuttered its only unionized plant in the country. After students heaped pressure on a slew of U.S. universities, convincing them to cut their Russell contracts, the company agreed to reopen the plant, scoring a major victory for students and the Honduran unionists.

Building on this experience, students began a campaign to force Nike to pay the 1,800 workers their severance. On Monday, they emerged victorious.

As they had done against Russell, activists crisscrossed the country with workers from the closed plants on a speaking tour at dozens of universities with contracts with the company, meeting with several university administrations. It wasn't long before the prospect of terminating Nike contracts was raised, and the company began to change its position.

It took 89 contract losses before Russell caved. This time, one contract termination at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the threat of another at Cornell were enough to convince Nike to accede to worker/student demands. The company agreed to pay $1.54 million to their former employees, provide healthcare and vocational training for a limited time, and give priority rehiring to the laid-off workers.

The win against Nike marks the second major victory in one year for USAS and garment workers. The students seem to have developed a winning strategy against massive multinationals they accuse of labor abuse: convincing individual universities to cut contracts with the companies while using traditional and new media to publicly shame the company into straightening up their act.

The method is not a particularly new one. Student labor organizations such as USAS and the Student Farmworker Alliance have utilized it for years, often with success against corporate giants like Yum! Brands and McDonalds. But organizers say they've hit their stride after taking on Nike, one of the garment industry's behemoths, and hope to introduce new standards of responsibility in the global subcontractor supply chain.

"This really is a watershed moment for the student anti-sweatshop movement," said Teresa Cheng, international campaigns coordinator for USAS. "Time and time again, corporations refuse to take responsibility for workers to whom they subcontract production."

Alex Bores, a rising sophomore at Cornell University who participated in the campaign calling for a contract termination--which included a massive student organization outreach effort and a "workout for workers rights," during which students passed out fliers to passing students--said the victory has implications for the entire garment industry.

"Mistreating workers is, sadly, how the apparel industry operates," he said.

"Corporations avoid responsibility [for workers] through the subcontracting system, where they can dictate the actions of factory owners without being held responsible for the devastating effects of their practices."

But, according to Cheng, in the wake of the Nike victory, "students and workers are setting a precedent in which corporations can no longer claim that they don't have responsibility for the workers making their products. "Nike has all the power, and for the first time, it is assuming responsibility for the damage it does in the global supply chain."

With a string of victories under their belt and momentum on their side, USAS isn't planning on slowing down.

"Our goal," Cheng explained, "is that someday, all college apparel will be made in strong union factories where workers can bargain for a living wage and humane working conditions -- and that the college apparel sector will serve as a model for the rest of the industry."

Micah Uetricht is an In These Times contributing editor. He is an assistant editor at Jacobin and has written for The Nation, Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Salon, and the Chicago Reader, and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (Verso/Jacobin Books, March 2014). Perhaps most importantly, he is also a proud former In These Times editorial intern. Follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht or contact him at micah.uetricht [at] gmail.

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