With Honduran factory closure, the University’s conduct code is violated

On October 8, Russell Athletic, a supplier of apparel to the University of Minnesota, announced their decision to close one of their largest Honduran factories. The facility, known as Jerzees de Honduras, is located in the town of Choloma and employs more than 1,800 workers. RussellâÄôs decision to close the factory comes on the heels of efforts by workers at the factory to negotiate with the company for better wages and improved working conditions. Although the company claims financial difficulties, an investigative report issued by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) indicates that the closure is in response to the formation of a labor union among the Jerzees de Honduras employees. The University of Minnesota is an affiliate of the WRC, an independent monitoring group, and it is documented in WRC reports as well as on the UniversityâÄôs website that this particular factory is producing University of Minnesota-licensed apparel. The closure is a blatant violation of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Licensee Code of Conduct, which protects the rights of workers to freely associate and collectively bargain. Robert Bruininks, as president of the University, must cut our contract with Russell immediately to ensure that brands take our universityâÄôs labor standards seriously. This is not the first time that Russell has acted in a harsh and retaliatory manner against Honduran workers who try to exercise basic workplace rights. Last spring, Russell fired more than 140 workers in an effort to crush workersâÄô efforts to form a union. It was not until several universities took action and threatened to cut their contracts with Russell that the company decided to do the right thing and rehire the fired workers. Thanks to intervention by universities, the fired workers were offered reinstatement and Russell agreed to recognize and negotiate with their union. Unfortunately it appears that Russell did not learn its lesson the first time. In October, the company announced plans to close its Jerzees de Honduras factory, one of the few collegiate factories in the world where workers had been able to successfully exercise their right to form an independent union, in large part due to intervention by universities and students. Russell claims that the decision to close the factory is based solely on economic reasons. Nevertheless, the WRC investigation found more than 100 incidents where Russell management had told workers that the factory would be closed because of the union. It is clear from RussellâÄôs actions that the company will take whatever action is necessary to prevent workers from exercising their right to organize a union, even if that means firing almost 2,000 workers in blatant violation of university codes of conduct. RussellâÄôs decision to close the Jerzees de Honduras facility is yet another salient example of why it is so important for President Bruininks to immediately adopt the Designated Supplier Program (DSP). Over the past two years, we have seen dozens of factories shut down after making real strides to enforce university codes of conduct. In many cases, it appears that major apparel brands decided to pull their orders from the facilities because they were unwilling to pay the slightly higher costs that are an inevitable result of a factory taking workersâÄô rights seriously. The Jerzees de Honduras closure is the most recent in a string of closures that have resulted in thousands of fired workers who are unable to find jobs and support their families. The DSP was created specifically to prevent this from happening, and to reward factories that respect workersâÄô rights, instead of punishing them with a loss of business. Unless the University of Minnesota adopts the DSP, workers making our clothes will continue to be faced with a choice between their jobs and their rights, just as weâÄôve seen at Jerzees de Honduras. If we allow Russell to shut down one of the only university logo apparel factories in the world where workers have been able to successfully exercise the basic right to form an independent union, we send a message to all apparel brands that it is acceptable to violate our licensee code of conduct, as long as they can provide an excuse, no matter how weak. What brands will understand from this is that as long as they pretend to respect workersâÄô rights for a few months, they can simply turn around and close the factory when no one is watching. Despite the pervasive climate of fear and intimidation that exists throughout the garment industry in Central America, workers at Jerzees de Honduras were able to successfully form a union and begin to negotiate a contract. When workers learn that Jerzees de Honduras is closing, the obvious conclusion is that any attempt to exercise their rights will be met with a loss of jobs and livelihood for themselves and their families. This closure will undermine not only UniversityâÄôs past efforts on this case, but all attempts everywhere to make codes of conduct meaningful. President Bruininks must immediately sever our contract with Russell Athletic. The University of Miami, a major licensing school, has already done so, and many others are considering it. We cannot afford to continue to stand by the sidelines while other schools do the right thing. Students from the Duluth, Twin Cities, and Morris chapters of the Minnesota Public Interest Group have demanded that President Bruininks take action, and that he do so before spring semester commences. Only swift and decisive action will reverse the harm thatâÄôs already been done to workers rights and demonstrate to Russell that we take our code of conduct seriously and we expect the company to do the same. The University of Minnesota and Russell Athletic may continue to make excuses about why they canâÄôt do the right thing, but thereâÄôs simply no excuse for violating workersâÄô rights. Ashley Gaschk, a student at the University of Minnesota Morris, is a MPIRG social justice task force leader. Please send comments to [email protected]