Before spring break, the University’s President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights recommended to President Mary Sue Coleman that we end our licensing contract with apparel-maker Russell Corporation. The recommendation came after workers’ rights abuses surfaced at Russell’s plant in Honduras called Jerzees de Honduras — particularly in response to the glaring “cut-and-run” tactic used at this factory, where over 1800 workers had been amidst collective bargaining negotiations. During negotiations with the union on its first contract, Russell closed the factory, leaving the workers, mostly women, without a means to support their families — a blatant violation of our University Code of Conduct for Licensees. In light of this, we appreciate the committee’s decision to respect the Code of Conduct and recommend ending the contract, but we also wish to emphasize that the context of this decision is indicative of a vastly insufficient process for ensuring widespread global protection of workers’ rights.
Even an obvious case of malfeasance like this took half a year before action was taken, given that the committee meets only once a month. Further, while other universities cut contracts in response to Russell’s anti-union activity last year in another Honduran plant, Jerzees de Choloma, the University of Michigan did not. Nor did we act when the New Era Cap Company sent top executives (including a “fair” labor association board member) to Alabama to intimidate and illegally fire activists struggling for a living wage and equal opportunity, in what the NAACP ultimately called “a disgraceful and discriminatory situation.” Nor did we take action two years ago in a situation of striking resemblance to the current Russell case when contractors for licensees like Nike were pressured to “cut-and-run” when workers demanded a livable wage and dignity through union contract negotiation at the BJ&B factory in the Dominican Republic.
These are the cases that have come to light thanks to the efforts of the Workers’ Rights Consortium. But they also call attention to the need for oversight for the overwhelming 4,782 factory job-sites currently sourced by University of Michigan logo licensees.
Reassuringly, the most recent meeting of the committee produced a discussion of several stipulations that Russell must meet if it ever wants a contract with us again. These include additional recommendations that can create momentum toward a just solution for the Honduran workers who are still unemployed and likely blacklisted despite this historic string of university business decisions. These indicators are still being drafted, but they will likely include that Russell must step up protections regarding freedom of association, respect collective bargaining agreements, strengthen language in company policies protecting workers and not open new factories without a tangibly positive collective bargaining atmosphere.
These are laudable goals, but the facts maintain that the status quo global system lacks the means of full compliance with these dreams. The only way to ensure that our code of conduct is followed is to institute a program in which we ally with other universities to get our apparel made in a more focused number of factories that require more sustainable contract relationships. This way, our market power can be concentrated to effect real change.
This program exists in the living document of the Designated Suppliers Program, a program to be undertaken by the WRC that would require university apparel be made only in factories paying a living wage and have worker representation and other vital protections. The Designated Suppliers Program cannot be launched until enough universities have signed on to support a working group set up to fashion university market power and introduce this revolutionary program in the global apparel industry.
To silence critics of this ambitious and innovative program, the WRC is working with clothing manufacturer and University licensee Knights Apparel to enact the provisions of the DSP on a single company scale. The pilot program will show the industry and universities that the principles of the DSP can fulfill our moral imperative while remaining economically viable. Thankfully, the committee has appeared supportive of including provisions to encourage independent university bookstores and shops to replace outgoing Russell stock with Knights Apparel, who would source new orders in deference to workers’ rights at the formerly forsaken BJ&B factory in the Dominican Republic.
We encourage supporters of the DSP to tell shop managers and owners carrying University logo apparel that they would like to see Knights Apparel products on the shelves because it is currently the only major brand that has been produced in a system designed for human dignity over exploitation.
Kate Barut, Jason Bates and Ken Srdjak are members of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality.