Nike contracts threatened by WRC membership

by Travis Reed

University President Mark Yudof’s decision last month to join the Worker Rights Consortium might eventually lighten the University’s pocketbook by more than just the price of WRC dues.
Last Thursday, Nike terminated its contract with Brown University after school officials tried to renegotiate their contract in accordance with the WRC code of conduct, a set of standards championed by students, sweatshop activists and organized labor groups nationwide.
In anticipation of this Friday’s founding WRC meeting, the move has raised more than a few eyebrows at universities nationwide.
Nike officials say the WRC is counterproductive because corporations are not allowed to sit at the consortium’s bargaining table, an exclusion they say creates distrust between all invested parties.
Simon Pestridge, Nike’s labor practices manager, says the corporation prefers their membership in the Fair Labor Association, an alternative labor-monitoring group criticized by activists and organized labor for catering too heavily to corporate interests.
“We’ve been involved with these labor issues for a long time, and we know how to make improvements in the factories,” Pestridge said. “What you’re saying with the WRC is that we don’t know how to do that.”
So far Brown, a founding WRC member, is the only institution to face repercussions because of their involvement.
Pestridge said Nike will deal with each university on a per contract basis. But the University of Minnesota, whose men’s and women’s basketball and hockey teams and football team all sport uniforms bearing the company’s trademark swoosh, could find itself in the same precarious position once the WRC is fully established.
At issue, in part, is the structure of each individual contract.
Brown University was in the second year of a three-year deal that provided equipment to their men’s hockey team at wholesale prices.
In interviews on Tuesday, University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said he needs to review each team’s specific Nike deal before evaluating the University’s prospects of experiencing similar difficulties with the Oregon-based apparel giant.
“(The contract) is not a charity,” Rotenberg said. “I think the relationship with Nike has been useful to Nike and the University, and I have no reason to believe it shouldn’t continue that way.”
If the University’s sideline contracts are terminated, it might endanger the Nike trademark agreement that brought in $10,000 last year and made Nike one of the University’s top 25 revenue-generating licensees.
But some activists say the contract termination is nothing more than a glorified scare tactic to leave conflict at the table as WRC representatives and officials sit down to structure the organization. The wave of WRC support has trumped FLA new membership of late, and many activists say the WRC could ultimately threaten FLA legitimacy.
“Nike is just trying to scare the schools because they’re afraid the WRC is going to be effective,” said Rana Kasich, member of the University Licensee Labor Practices Task Force. “They can’t take away the contracts of every WRC school.”

Travis Reed covers environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3232.