The University logo is more than a brand. The Block M emblazoned on thousands of baseball hats represents an institution that claims to value pride, integrity and tolerance. Ironically, the New Era Cap Company, the producer of these iconic baseball hats, is battling allegations of unfair labor practices at its Mobile, Ala. distribution center. The University’s administration needs to take a stronger stance to defend labor rights, using its weight to force these companies to respect basic rights and upholding the University’s values.
The University first received reports of prejudiced practices at New Era’s Alabama distribution center from the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor-monitoring organization. The WRC, which the University and other universities pay to monitor their apparel contracts, reported that the company is discriminating against black and female workers. Last month, the NAACP confirmed these accusations after conducting its own investigation.
Unlike the University of Wisconsin, which immediately terminated its contract with New Era after receiving reports of these abuses, the University of Michigan hit New Era where it really hurts – the mailbox. The University wrote a letter to the company, weakly reprimanding it for its actions. The University refused to fully acknowledge the severity of the situation, asking New Era to fix the problem whether it had been done “intentionally or not.”
In light of New Era’s trouble in the past, the University needed to take a more hard-line approach. The University cut its contract with New Era six years ago when one of its New York factories was revealed to have unsafe working conditions. Although New Era corrected the problem and the University reinstated the contract, the company has to be held to a higher standard now. Repeat offenders like New Era can’t just be slapped on the wrist. While cutting the contract again might not have been necessary, the threat of terminating the contract could have been dangled in front of New Era.
The problem is that University has no incentive to police the companies with whom it has contracts. The administration often turns a blind eye to its more lucrative contractors because there is so much money at stake. That doesn’t mean it’s not hypocritical or embarrassing. The University must uphold institutional morality by recognizing and regulating the types of labor practices condoned in the University Athletic Department’s apparel contracts – it cannot allow big businesses to dictate the values associated with the University brand.
To fight against unfair labor practices and enforce the University’s Vendor Code of Conduct, the administration’s first plan of action should be to hold itself accountable for its poor contractual choices. By having the Board of Regents, rather than the University Athletic Department, review large merchandising contracts like the eight-year, $60 million deal with Adidas that was negotiated this summer, there would be more transparency and public discussion. The whole community could then decide if these contracts, which reflect on the entire University, uphold this institution’s values.
The University should also commit to have its apparel produced at factories approved by the Designated Suppliers Program, a program that screens companies for their use of fair-labor practices. Finally, when possible, the University should find a local vendor to produce its merchandise. By keeping apparel contracts local, it would be easier to monitor the company’s labor practices as well as contribute to the area’s economy.
Instead of remaining dormant on another potential scandal, the University needs to stand up for its morals. If the administration doesn’t take quick and effective action, the Block M will be forever tainted with images of sweatshops, exploitation and racism.