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Student Activists Say, "No!"

Is Corporate "Responsibility" the New Justice?

by JEFFREY BALLINGER

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.

—Frederick Douglass, 1857

When U.S. students and Honduran workers scored an impressive win over Nike earlier last year, what they had to overcome in their struggle was nothing less than the debasement of political and human rights reportage, where workers’ struggles are addressed as "corporate responsibility" issues and the fight for a livable wage hardly appears. In the mid-1990s, firms discovered that they could only "manage" their supply chain insofar as perceptions of it could be controlled—that is, what the world sees. There are two other key points about the supply chain: You cannot inject justice into it or extract the exploitation from it.

For workers, the rise of outsourcing in many industries is the biggest foundation-shaking change in capitalism since the Industrial Revolution; assembly-line workers now toil for two groups of shareholders: those of the ultimate bosses—the buyers (the big brands)—and the contractors. Some of these contractors have become quite big themselves. The CEO of shoe-maker Yue Yuen, Tsai Chi Jui, recently joined the ranks of billionaires. In the same year, a mere product endorser, Tiger Woods, became a billionaire.

How did university students achieve a string of victories for Latin American workers? United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has assisted more than 4,000 college-logo garment workers in Honduras and the Dominican Republic by deploying grassroots pressure tactics and carefully crafted appeals to university administrators. Even in the midst of a global economic downturn, diligent research combined with determined activism on the part of the wronged workers forced Russell Athletic to reopen a factory that was closed to thwart unionization. It produced an agreement between Nike and the CGT union of Honduras to pay restitution to 2,100 workers illegally denied severance benefits when two suppliers for the shoe giant closed abruptly last year. In addition, the students’ persistence in seeking ethical alternatives has led the largest brand selling to bookstores, Knights Apparel, to pay more than triple the Dominican Republic’s minimum wage to hundreds of workers. Merchandise from the Alta Gracia factory is already on 140 campuses.

The research to monitor compliance with "codes of conduct" for factories was carried out by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC; launched by the USAS in 1999) and funded by 123 universities, based on a percentage of university-licensed apparel sales. While the codes include language about "freedom of association" and collective bargaining—specific trade union protections—the Russell case was the first in nearly a decade of activism that delivered meaningful redress when the Jerzees de Honduras plant was shuttered as collective bargaining talks were under way. For 14 months starting in early 2008, USAS teams in North America and Great Britain convinced administrators at 110 schools to stop purchasing from Russell Athletic. College bookstores are the company’s largest revenue source. In late 2009, the Jerzees de Honduras factory was reopened and Russell has pledged not to oppose unionization at seven other factories it owns and operates nearby.

In contrast to the Russell production strategy, the vast majority of apparel is produced in contract factories. The Nike "severance" case has chipped away at what the students see as the chief impediment to enforceable accountability: the arm’s-length relationship between buyer and supplier. Indeed, the 15–20 campaigns of WRC/USAS carried out prior to this case may be described as triage, wherein the brand (e.g., Champion, Adidas) is pressured to induce a contract factory to rehire a few protest leaders or pay some compensation—in no case leading to a robust bargaining relationship. When Nike agreed to make up nearly all of the $2.2 million in arrears left by its suppliers Vision Tex and Hugger de Honduras, an important precedent was established.

‘Street Heat’ and Importuning Administrators

The WRC has built up years of goodwill with university officials tasked with sorting out concerns over bookstore sourcing questions. Regular meetings and reasonable demands for intervention placed the monitoring body in a good position to raise the ante. But the campaign work had to come from the student pressure group—USAS—a loosely structured body that had acted more as an information clearinghouse until the recent struggles.

When USAS hired Rod Palmquist as International Campaigns Coordinator, they found a tireless agitator who recognized the power of students in the milieu of an inexorably corporatizing campus life. As a leader of a student group at the University of Washington called the Fair Trade Coffee Coalition, Rod helped lead one of United Students for Fair Trade’s most successful campus campaigns in support of fair trade-certified products, convincing the Tully’s Coffee Corporation to convert all of its espresso blends to fair trade nationwide.

This is not to say that USAS’s national leadership was stuck in neutral for a decade. Activities aimed at helping campus chapters address a WRC-driven agenda produced some gains, but when Palmquist launched a relentless campaign with one corporation in the crosshairs, student power was increased immeasurably. What he calls "the biggest university boycott since the anti-apartheid movement" brought justice to the Russell workers and built momentum for a run at Nike, the world’s number-one purveyor of the notion that workers’ exploitation can be addressed with corporate social responsibility policies emanating from corporate headquarters in Oregon.

As union leader A. Phillip Randolph said, "At the banquet table of life there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take and you take what you can hold. And you can’t hold anything without power. And power comes from organization."

What Jeff Ballinger saw in Indonesia 20 years ago surprised and inspired him: thousands of young Indonesians rising up against Nike’s brutal contractors even when it meant facing off against a repressive, military-led regime. He founded and directed Press for Change, a consumer-information NGO that monitored worker rights issues in Asia.