Start a ''New Era'' with student action

Published January 24, 2002

Outside Buffalo, N.Y, a metal barrel sits alongside a busy road. In it, a small fire, fueled by logs found on the roadside and old newspapers, burns and warms about a dozen women gathered around, stomping their feet and rubbing their hands together. One thing is clear: It"s cold out. The mercury reads around 20 degrees, but the frigid wind makes it nearly unbearable. As close to the road as they can get without blocking traffic, more workers are marching up and down wearing signs saying, "CWA on strike" around their necks.

This is a picket line. The workers are employees of New Era Cap Company and members of Communication Workers of America Local 14177. They have one major tie to Ann Arbor: They make hats bearing the University logo. They have been on strike for the last six months.

Car horns blare as they speed down the road. The strikers raise their hands or wave in recognition and thanks. Judging by the sympathetic articles in the local paper and the number of cars honking in support, the community seems to be largely in support of the work stoppage.

The plant that used to run three shifts a day is now down to one, due to the strike the outcome of management"s greedy insistence and the workers" subsequent rejection of a contract that offered, at best, a $4 per hour pay cut and a speed-up of the line.

What once was a sturdy, comfortable job with above-average pay is now a wasteland of piecework, quota minimums that are nearly impossible to meet and nagging injuries that are ignored by management and misdiagnosed or brushed off by plant doctors. The workers are, needless to say, both disappointed and angry about the decline of their work environment. Mary Catalino, who has worked at New Era for the last seven years, tells me that the proposed contract from New Era would have cut her hourly wage by $7. Her statement is typical of the effect management"s proposed contract would have on the New Era plant"s workers. Unable to accept such a contract, the union voted to go on strike last July.

In addition to the wage cuts, New Era moved some of its production to two new plants in Alabama (a relatively poor and union-unfriendly state) after workers affiliated with the CWA in 1997. Now, there is a plant in Bangladesh, too. The "made in Bangladesh" tags on these hats are sewn to the hat in a place where they are not so obvious after all, New Era has a long history of their caps being "made in the U.S.A." and wants to hide the fact that it now subcontracts its work out to countries where it can pay its workers insultingly low wages.

The fire is dying down and that means it"s time to leave. Six months is an unusually long time to be on strike, a gutsy, possibly suicidal move in the labor community. Although they know their situation is difficult, morale among the strikers is high. They speak confidently about the intricacies of their jobs, wages, management"s tactics and the economics of running a factory. The workers are committed to victory and after walking the picket line with them, it is obvious that they work just as hard at this as they did at their jobs. Strike relief is only $400 a week, hardly a paying gig. Many of them are supporting families and can"t afford to be out on strike.

At this point, the power to induce change lies with New Era"s customers, like the universities who hold contracts with the hat-making plant. Because of said labor practices, New Era is currently in violation of the contract it holds with the University. Suspending a contract with New Era would send a strong message to their management, namely: We won"t tolerate our apparel to be made in factories with grossly inadequate compensation, insufficient care for work-related injuries, sub-standard pay and a work environment rife with intimidation and threats.

It is the responsibility of the University to ensure that apparel and other goods bearing the University logo are made under decent and fair working conditions providing a living wage to its workers.

What can students do to stand in solidarity with the workers in New York? First of all, don"t buy New Era baseball caps. They are made with scab labor (in the case of the Derby plant) and/or in non-union shops with deleterious working conditions and low wages (in the cases of the Alabama/Bangladesh plants).

Secondly, support the fight for the University to suspend their contract with New Era. Call or write the administration to let them know that they are being watched. It is time for the University"s administration to wake up and send a message to New Era: Either clean up or prepare to be cut off.

McClear is an LSA jumior and a member of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality.