Will Sweatshop Activists' Big Victory Over Nike Trigger
Broader Industry Reforms?
By Micah Uetricht
Working In These Times
July 28, 2010
With the memory of a previous victory over a multinational
garment manufacturer still fresh in their minds, student
labor activists and Honduran workers are celebrating what
they say is another major win -- this one against industry
In 2009, Nike shut down two subcontractor plants in
Honduras, leaving 1,800 workers without jobs. Under Honduran
labor law, the workers were owed severance pay, to the tune
of several million dollars. But Nike indicated it had no
intention of paying.
Student activists with United Students Against Sweatshops
(USAS) were no strangers to labor disputes over Honduran
factory closures. Also last year, they picked a fight with
Russell Athletic, another major global garment manufacturer,
over alleged unionbusting in Honduras after the company
shuttered its only unionized plant in the country. After
students heaped pressure on a slew of U.S. universities,
convincing them to cut their Russell contracts, the company
agreed to reopen the plant, scoring a major victory for
students and the Honduran unionists.
Building on this experience, students began a campaign to
force Nike to pay the 1,800 workers their severance. On
Monday, they emerged victorious.
As they had done against Russell, activists crisscrossed the
country with workers from the closed plants on a speaking
tour at dozens of universities with contracts with the
company, meeting with several university administrations. It
wasn't long before the prospect of terminating Nike
contracts was raised, and the company began to change its
It took 89 contract losses before Russell caved. This time,
one contract termination at the University of Wisconsin-
Madison and the threat of another at Cornell were enough to
convince Nike to accede to worker/student demands. The
company agreed to pay $1.54 million to their former
employees, provide healthcare and vocational training for a
limited time, and give priority rehiring to the laid-off
The win against Nike marks the second major victory in one
year for USAS and garment workers. The students seem to have
developed a winning strategy against massive multinationals
they accuse of labor abuse: convincing individual
universities to cut contracts with the companies while using
traditional and new media to publicly shame the company into
straightening up their act.
The method is not a particularly new one. Student labor
organizations such as USAS and the Student Farmworker
Alliance have utilized it for years, often with success
against corporate giants like Yum! Brands and McDonalds. But
organizers say they've hit their stride after taking on
Nike, one of the garment industry's behemoths, and hope to
introduce new standards of responsibility in the global
subcontractor supply chain.
"This really is a watershed moment for the student anti-
sweatshop movement," said Teresa Cheng, international
campaigns coordinator for USAS. "Time and time again,
corporations refuse to take responsibility for workers to
whom they subcontract production."
Alex Bores, a rising sophomore at Cornell University who
participated in the campaign calling for a contract
termination-- which included a massive student organization
outreach effort and a "workout for workers rights," during
which students passed out fliers to passing students--said
the victory has implications for the entire garment
"Mistreating workers is, sadly, how the apparel industry
operates," he said.
"Corporations avoid responsibility [for workers] through the
subcontracting system, where they can dictate the actions of
factory owners without being held responsible for the
devastating effects of their practices."
But, according to Cheng, in the wake of the Nike victory,
"students and workers are setting a precedent in which
corporations can no longer claim that they don't have
responsibility for the workers making their products. "Nike
has all the power, and for the first time, it is assuming
responsibility for the damage it does in the global supply
With a string of victories under their belt and momentum on
their side, USAS isn't planning on slowing down.
"Our goal," Cheng explained, "is that someday, all college
apparel will be made in strong union factories where workers
can bargain for a living wage and humane working conditions
-- and that the college apparel sector will serve as a model
for the rest of the industry."
[Micah Uetricht, a former In These Times editorial intern,
is a staff writer for the Chicago website GapersBlock.com.
He lives in Chicago.]
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