Universities’ boycott wins garment workers right to unionize

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The University is making sure that companies that produce apparel bearing its name and logo treat garment workers fairly. / Photo by Jenica MillerExecutives at Russell Athletic probably expected that U.S. labor-rights activists would protest when the company shut down one of its Honduran factories in early 2009, soon after workers there had unionized. But would the bad PR hurt Russell’s bottom line? That was more doubtful. The Atlanta-based apparel company had long been criticized for its treatment of garment workers and yet it retained licensing deals with many of the same colleges and universities that were hotbeds of anti-sweatshop protest.

This time, however, the academic community pushed back hard against Russell. Within weeks of the factory’s closing, about a dozen institutions of higher learning, including Columbia, told the company that it could no longer manufacture T-shirts, sweatshirts, and other clothing items bearing their names and logos. By the summer of 2009, more than 80 universities, many under pressure from local chapters of the United Students Against Sweatshops, had dropped their licensing deals with Russell. The boycott was based on solid information about the company’s conduct in Honduras: Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a watchdog group that is funded by Columbia and 185 other colleges and universities to monitor companies with which they have licensing agreements, concluded in a series of investigations last year that Russell was “systematically and persistently” harassing garment workers who tried to unionize. The factory closing in Choloma, Honduras, which cost 1200 people their jobs, was almost certainly retribution for those workers’ attempts to negotiate collectively for better conditions, the WRC found.

The boycott — the largest ever by colleges and universities against a clothing maker — eventually pushed Russell to the bargaining table. This past winter, representatives of Russell, the WRC, and the laid-off garment workers announced a plan to reopen Russell’s factory in Choloma soon and to give the workers their jobs back. Russell and its parent company, Fruit of the Loom, have also vowed to permit unions at all seven of their Honduran factories, in accordance with Honduran law.

“This is a crucial victory for free-association rights,” says Sharyn O’Halloran, a scholar of labor issues and Columbia’s George Blumenthal Professor of Political Economy and Professor of International and Public Affairs. “It’s going to encourage workers to be more aggressive in articulating their concerns to employers in a collective way.”

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