In response to the closing of a garment factory in Honduras employing over 1800 workers after the plant unionized, the University of Michigan has cut its contract with the Russell Athletic Corporation. The cut is one of 21 contracts Russell has lost in the last two months.
The campaign, spearheaded by Students Organized for Labor and Economic Equality, was the twelfth such termination and received coverage in the New York Times. United Students Against Sweatshops, a national student/labor group, launched its campaign against Russell last year. Since February, multiple cuts have been reported every week at universities including Harvard, Minnesota, Purdue, Cornell, Wisconsin, Georgetown, and Rutgers, and fourteen other schools.
Russell closed one of its Honduran plants, Jerzees de Honduras, after 750 workers decided to join a union. Management and workers were embattled over workers’ contracts, including access to clean drinking water, living wages, and an end to verbal abuse. In a statement to the New York Times, Russell admitted that “management mistakes were made that led to a failure to adhere” to “standards on freedom of association,” but the company has tried to salvage its public image through the use of a website, ReinInRussell.com, designed to fool people looking for USAS’ Rein In Russell site. It may be some time, however, before their public relations division can rebuild the company’s reputation, as the whole incident has been a PR debacle for the company.
West Michigan USAS affiliates have a history of contract fights over companies’ poor labor records, some of which have been successful. Grand Valley State University‘s USAS chapter pressured their school to terminate its contract with Taco Bell after tomato pickers in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, demanded the first increase in their wages since the 1970s. While GVSU did not cut their contract, the students’ pressure against Taco Bell and its owner Yum! Brands was significant, and the CIW eventually won the campaign and have led successful fights against Burger King and McDonald’s.
In addition, Aquinas College‘s Social Action Committee led a successful campaign to terminate their school’s soda contract with the Coca-Cola Corporation in light of the company’s involvement in anti-union violence in Colombia. Members of the SINALTRAINAL union have been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by paramilitaries in collaboration with bottling factory management for their unionizing efforts. In addition, the corporation has caused extreme environmental degradation including the poisoning of groundwater in India. Over forty universities around the country have cut their Coca-Cola contracts.