Duke University has decided to delay its renewal of its contract with New Era Cap Company, a Derby, N.Y. based athletic apparel manufacturer, due to the company”s questionable labor practices. Concerns regarding possible discrimination, sub-standard working conditions and union busting led to Duke”s action. Duke”s decision should serve as an example to the University of Michigan when its contract with New Era expires in the next year.

Over the past several years, New Era”s labor practices have come under fire from workers” organizations. New Era cap company outsources work to sweatshops in Bangladesh where workers are forced to endure extended periods of overtime in violation of Bangladeshi law, drink unsanitary water and suffer abuse from supervisors.

New Era”s unsavory actions have also occurred in its domestic plants. According to the Worker Rights Consortium, of which the University is a member, the Derby factory has a disproportionately high rate of musculoskeletal ailments. In a survey of 140 workers 46 percent were found to have work related injuries. This past August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued four citations against New Era for inadequate safety measures in its U.S. plants.

New Era has also sought to punish its workers for joining an aggressive union, the Communications Workers of America, by transferring jobs to non-unionized factories and approving unilateral pay cuts. A management proposal to significantly reduce wages, if the rate of production in the Derby plant was not increased, lead to a strike in July. The American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organizations urged its 13 million members to boycott New Era and the Major League Baseball Players Association (New Era has an exclusive contract with Major League Baseball) and supports the striking workers. The WRC report on New Era states that the company has displayed significant anti-union hostility and there is credible evidence supporting workers” safety complaints.

The University possesses one of the most recognizable and powerful athletic brand names. If the University chooses to boycott until New Era”s labor practices are improved, such action would serve as a direct incentive for the company to reform. Conversely, if the University chooses to renew the contract without advocating workers rights, the decision will harm the company”s employees and set a bad example for other colleges and universities who have contracts with New Era.

As an educational institution, the University must act with social responsibility and honor its commitment to the WRC. While the University is presently bound by a contract with New Era, when future negotiations commence the University must be willing to end its relationship with the company if its labor practices do not improve. The University cannot afford to have its name associated with a company that uses unethical methods in its pursuit of profit.

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