When the University’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights takes issue with your business practices, you’re probably doing something wrong. Last Monday, the committee called for the University to sever its ties to Russell Athletic, citing reports that the athletic apparel company has been firing workers for trying to unionize at its facilities in Honduras. Such actions are a blatant violation of fair labor practices, and the committee’s advice should be promptly followed. Given the University’s previous failings on issues of labor standards, as well as the immense popularity of its collegiate merchandise, the University can’t afford to take a weak stance on fair labor standards.

Russell fired 1,800 workers when it closed one of its plants in Honduras. The workers claim that they were fired for trying to unionize and that the company ignored their requests for higher wages, refusing to negotiate. The company alleges that the plant was closed due to declining demand for its products. But a recent report from the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring agency, provided evidence that the company’s decision to close the plant was made in response to workers’ attempts to organize. At an event last week sponsored by Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, two of the fired union leaders spoke of receiving threats to their lives and families.

These allegations are deeply troubling. Workers in Russell’s Latin American facilities already work for far less pay than U.S. workers. Their right to organize should be encouraged so that they can press for improved working conditions and a decent wage. Unfortunately, despite clear warnings and an awareness of the potential consequences, Russell has resorted to draconian measures to suppress the demands of its workers. These are hardly the sorts of practices with which the University should be affiliated.

Cutting ties with Russell would demonstrate commitment to fair labor standards and responsible corporate affiliations, especially in light of several previous University blunders. The failure to sign onto the Designated Suppliers Program is just one example. The University has repeatedly rejected this plan, which would screen companies based on their commitment to fair-labor practices and require the University to sign only with approved companies. Concerns have also come up around other suppliers like Adidas and the New Era Cap Company, and they’ve hardly helped the University’s image. Cutting ties with Russell would begin to make up for these incidents.

According to a recent report by the College Licensing Company, Michigan merchandise was the sixth best selling university brand in the second quarter of the 2008-09 fiscal year. These figures give Michigan both great responsibility and great leverage, and it’s time for the University to exercise both. When the workers toiling in faraway factories can’t improve working conditions on their own, strong stances from influential institutions like the University are needed to do the trick.

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