U rethinks apparel deal over worker rights charges

Sarah Klaphake

A University official said the school will consider breaking ties with a Wisconsin-based apparel manufacturer accused of worker harassment at one of its overseas factories.

Lands’ End has a two-year license to produce University apparel, including jackets, dress shirts and baseball caps. Some of its products are made at an El Salvadoran factory that sweatshop watchdogs say denies employment to pro-union workers.

The Worker Rights Consortium, a nonprofit coalition the University joined last year, accused the Primo Factory of discrimination in March, said Nancy Steffen of the Worker Rights Consortium.

If the allegations are true, Lands’ End would be violating standards in the University’s

code of conduct, which it adopted in May 2002. The code prohibits deals with factories that harass,

intimidate or retaliate against workers who attempt to form unions.

Now, University officials face the first challenge to the code and are deliberating about whether to end the institution’s agreement with Lands’ End.

Lands’ End spokesman Chris Mordi confirmed that the company uses the factory but said it does not agree with the Worker Rights Consortium’s finding.

“We have no proof confirming the allegations that union members are blacklisted and denied employment,” Mordi said.

Despite the company’s doubt, Mordi said Lands’ End is working to find a solution.

Bob Hicks, assistant department director for University trademarks and licensing, said the University knows about the situation and is discussing the problem.

“We certainly would break our contract with Lands’ End if we find that it will be beneficial to the workers,” Hicks said. “If the (Worker Rights Consortium) tells us to do so, then we will

seriously consider breaking the contract.”

United Students Against Sweatshops – a student organization of more than 200 anti-sweatshop groups – said drastic measures are necessary because Lands’ End has not taken sufficient action. It is now asking universities to break contracts with Lands’ End.

Steffen agreed that Lands’ End has not made progress.

“The company does not look like they are making efforts to improve the situation,” Steffen said. “None of the blacklisted workers have gotten jobs at the company as of yet.”

Ben McKean, an organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops, said economic pressure could force the company to correct the situation at Primo.

Hicks said he was unaware that the group asked universities to break their contracts, but he said news from the group is slow in coming because there is no University chapter.

“If there was a student group on campus, they would have helped alert us,” Hicks said.

He said he doubts breaking the contract with Lands’ End will make a difference because the company does not produce many University products.

Bob Crabb, director of University Bookstores, said the bookstores have never bought anything from Lands’ End.

Although the University compiles no specific numbers, according to the Lands’ End Web site the company produces a variety of items with the University logo, including dress shirts, outerwear, blankets and bags sold through the company’s catalog, Web site and stores.

Alyssa Erickson, a coordinator for Youth Organizers – an anti-sweatshop movement that works with area high schools – said the University has shown it cares about the issue but now needs to prove it with action.

“So far, the University has been on track. They have a solid code of conduct,” Erickson said. “But it all depends on what they do next.”

Because this is the first time the Worker Rights Consortium

has asked the University to take action against a company licensed to make its apparel, Hicks said,

officials are talking with other schools before making any

decisions.

More than 100 universities nationwide license their logo to Lands’ End, including all Big Ten schools. Nine Big Ten schools also have codes of conduct similar to the University’s.

Rutgers University in New Jersey has announced action against Lands’ End.

Marybeth Schmutz, assistant director for trademark licensing at Rutgers, said the school will not renew its contract with Lands’ End because of the discovery.

However, she said, the University is wise to deliberate before acting.

“The ‘U of M’ is doing the right thing by proceeding cautiously,” Schmutz said.

Sue Mauren, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 320, a union representing 1,400 University maintenance, custodial and food service employees, said she is outraged the University has not terminated the contract.

“It’s outrageous for the University to do business with factories that deny people the right to join a union,” Mauren said. “Having the right to join a union is a basic human right.”