Nike loses to activism at UW

April 14, 2010

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field reports on the anti-sweatshop campaign that pressured the University of Wisconsin into canceling its contract with Nike.

STUDENT ACTIVISTS at the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison won an important victory for labor rights when Chancellor Biddy Martin announced that the university will revoke Nike's authorization to sell university apparel in response to the company's labor violations abroad.

The chancellor's decision came on the heels of an escalating campaign led by the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC), culminating in a boisterous rally of more than 100 students last Thursday.

At issue are two union factories in Honduras. Nike's subcontractors closed the factories in January 2009, refusing to offer severance pay and back wages totaling $2.1 million. As SLAC activist and student government representative Jonah Zinn said, "$2.1 million is pennies to Nike, but two-and-a-half years of wages to those workers."

Nike's refusal to offer severance pay violates Honduran law--and that's a breach of UW-Madison's apparel policy, which requires companies using the school's logo to follow local labor laws.

When SLAC brought the violation to Martin's attention, she gave Nike a 120-day grace period to address the issue. SLAC, which is part of the national coalition United Students Against Sweatshops, used those 120 days to draw attention to the issue and maintain pressure on the university with a series of small actions.

April 8 marked the end of Nike's grace period. More than 100 students came to a rally organized by SLAC and supported by two campus unions, AFSCME Local 171 and the Teaching Assistant Association. Members of SLAC also credited other organizations, among them the International Socialist Organization, for supporting the protest.

The demonstration called on the university to immediately cut its ties with Nike. "We are the children of workers. We will be workers. And we will be the parents of workers," said freshman and SLAC leader Beth Huang, who chaired the rally. "Workers' rights are student rights. Every year, our tuition goes up, but the pay of workers on this campus does not."

The next day, Martin announced that Nike would no longer be authorized to use the university's logo. This ends an agreement that last year netted the university $49,000 in licensing fees, according to the Associated Press.

NOW, THE question is whether UW-Madison students' victory will spread to other schools. There's a precedent for campaigns like this spreading--and winning.

In 2009, student and labor protest led 100 universities in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom to break ties with Russell Athletics after the company closed two Honduran factories in an effort to prevent unionization. The lost contracts forced Russell to reopen both factories, rehire the workers and recognize the union, an "unprecedented victory" for the anti-sweatshop solidarity movement, said AFSCME Local 171 Steward Mark Thomas.

Further action against Nike is sorely needed. The shoemaker is one of several companies refusing to obey new minimum wage laws for unskilled workers in Bangalore, India. According to SLAC's Jonah Zinn, "This amounts to over $11 million so far that is owed to 125,000 workers."

Meanwhile, UW-Madison activists are planning next steps on our campus. This week, activists are running two campaigns in student government elections--to elect a progressive slate of candidates and to vote down a referendum that would raise student fees by at least $100 a year to build a new natatorium. The university and local construction companies have spent tens of thousands of dollars to urge student support for the referendum--the campaign against it has been spearheaded by the graduate student workers' union.

On April 16, two Honduran garment workers formerly employed at Nike's factories will speak on campus as part of the Sweat-free Campus Worker Tour. The event is now sure to be a victory celebration--as well as a sobering look at Nike's sweatshops and a chance to strategize about how students can continue to keep the pressure on Nike.

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