Posted by Matthew Rothschild on July 29, 2010

Score one for student pressure!

The group, United Students Against Sweatshops, just achieved a huge victory when it got mighty Nike to agree to pay $1.5 million to Honduran workers who were denied their severance pay when two Nike subcontractors suddenly closed their doors last year.

At first, Nike denied that it had an obligation to substantially assist these workers.

But then the activist group United Students Against Sweatshops started a nationwide campaign against Nike, with many protests outside the company’s Niketown stores and actions on 40 campuses around the country.

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Back in the spring, student activists at the University of Wisconsin successfully pressured the school to honor its code of conduct, which prohibits dealings with companies that mistreat their workers.

To her credit, UW-Madison chancellor Biddy Martin severed the school’s licensing contract with Nike in April, and as a result, Nike wasn’t allowed to produce Badger apparel.

Student pressure also succeeded at Cornell, which announced in June that if Nike didn’t remedy the situation, it would sever ties with the company.

United Students Against Sweatshops hailed the agreement as “a watershed moment,” campaign coordinator Linda Gomaa said in a press release.

“Ever since the 1990s, when Nike led the race to the bottom that produced shocking sweatshop headlines, the sportswear giant has refused to acknowledge responsibility for worker abuses at its subcontracted supplier factories,” the group said, adding, “Today that era is over.”

Nike, in a joint statement with the Central General de Trabajadores de Honduras, which represented the workers at the subcontractors, said it would provide “a workers’ relief fund of $1.5 million.” And it would “work with its Honduran suppliers to offer vocational training programs and prioritize hiring” of the discharged workers. In the meantime, Nike also said it would cover their enrollment in the Honduran Institute of Social Security so they could “obtain health coverage for a year or until they find new employment.”

Jane Collins, a rural sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and member of the University’s Labor Licensing and Policies Committee, applauds the students for their “strategic” approach. The selective picketing, the media coverage, and the involvement of academics writing top officials at Nike all played a role, she said.

Collins also stresses the Honduran context of this victory.

“Honduras had a coup last year,” she says. “And some of the people who came to power in the coup were the apparel magnates in Honduras, and the oppression of workers has increased.” This agreement with Nike and the Honduran union provides “encouragement to the apparel workers there.”

Collins expects the University of Wisconsin-Madison to restart its Nike contract.

“Once a company does what you ask, you want to reward them,” she says.”

Jeni Le, one of the Madison activists with United Students Against Sweatshops, says this victory “shows that activism really works. It’s a coming of age for the student anti-sweatshop movement.“

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his article “Wikileaks Deserve Praise, Not Criticism, for Afghan War Leaks”

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