Universities Take A Stand Against Labor Abuses

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Last month, Cornell University announced that they cut ties with Nike over labor disputes.

This is a win for Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA), a student group that started protesting Cornell’s licensing contract with Nike two years ago after they refused to allow the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) to independently monitor its supply chain. With this, Cornell joined four other schools that have severed their contracts with the manufacturer: Rutgers University, Georgetown University, UC Santa Barbara and Northeastern University.

The campus protests began following a strike that occurred in October 2015 at a Nike Factory in Hansae, Vietnam. Workers cited multiple labor abuses as the cause for the strike and student organizations at various American universities launched campaigns to support workers in Nike factories in Vietnam, Cambodia, Honduras, and Mexico.

The student groups are demanding Nike grant the WRC access and, if they don’t, they’re ratcheting up the heat on their schools to drop them. Without the WRC, an independent labor monitoring system that inspects factories where Cornell and other university apparel are manufactured, workers are at a greater risk of labor abuses. Students see their tuition dollars supporting Nike and an opportunity to call on their school for change.

COLA wrote on their Facebook page that they “organized countless actions including teach-ins, photo campaigns, call-ins, store actions, rallies, worker speak outs, and engaged with Union leaders from around the world to demonstrate that student-worker solidarity works.”  Just as consumers can hold the brands they purchase from accountable for how they treat workers, students are seizing the opportunity to ensure their schools’ administrators are strategically leveraging their own purchasing power and are spending their tuition dollars with companies that live up to their alma mater’s creed.

Cornell University’s president Martha Pollack announced the decision to cut ties with Nike, however, that applied to the school’s general contract for Nike branded items available in the bookstore and elsewhere. Cornell Athletics continues to work with Nike under a separate contract for their sports teams’ uniforms. The Athletic sponsorship and licensing contract covers five varsity teams and continues through 2020. This same issue has occurred at other universities, with their athletic apparel contracts being separate from the school’s licensing agreements. Three of the five schools who have cut ties with Nike have also switched athletic sponsors, although not always concurrently.

So what’s next?

Cornell Organization for Labor Action is a chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a network of students that organize campaigns that fight for workers’ rights. USAS coordinates campaigns across 150 colleges campuses and partners with unions representing garment workers across the world. In addition, USAS does have more localized and college specific living wage and workers’ rights campaigns.

USAS chapters will continue pressing for fair wages, worker’s rights and for WRC access to the Nike supply chain. Cornell student Hassan Saleem said that COLA, “simultaneously works on a number of local campaigns and efforts that happen throughout the year” so they’re not short on rights to fight for!

If you’d like to get involved on your campus, visit the USAS website and see if a chapter already exists. If it doesn’t, start one!

You can also lobby your athletic department to drop the Big Box providers and opt for a company doing good for people and the planet instead. Student athletes at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania did this last year, choosing to have their uniforms made in the USA and made from recycled plastic bottles.

You also have the opportunity to shop your values with nearly every purchase you make through the DoneGood Chrome extension and app.

We go to college to learn that we should work hard to create the world we want to live in every day. Our purchasing decisions can help to create that world. And when groups like COLA and others influence large purchasing decisions of organizations and schools, it can make an even greater impact.

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