Russell Ath. to rehire laid-off workers

Workers laid off at a Honduras plant will likely be back to work in 2010.

Michael Rietmulder

After Russell Athletic announced changes to its employee maltreatment, the University of Minnesota may be in line to renew an apparel contract they cut just months ago. âÄúOur office will be advising the University that Russell is now in compliance with our University labor standards,âÄù University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said. A vigorous student campaign to end workersâÄô rights infractions at a Russell Athletic manufacturing plant in Honduras claimed victory Nov. 18 when the Worker Rights Consortium announced an agreement had been reached with the athletic apparel company. In February, the University dropped its contract with Russell after the WRC reported that the company violated the UniversityâÄôs licensing code of conduct. âÄúI see no reason why Russell could not be a contracting party for our licensed apparel,âÄù Rotenberg said. Under the new agreement, Russell will rehire 1,200 workers from its Jerzees de Honduras plant which the company shutdown Jan. 30 in Choloma, Honduras. In addition, the company has pledged $2.5 million in financial aid to the workers, which equates to roughly $2,000 for each worker. Russell also agreed to open a new unionized factory in the country. âÄúItâÄôs an extraordinary breakthrough for not just the workers of Russell Athletic in Honduras but for workers throughout the apparel industry in Central America,âÄù said WRC Executive Director Scott Nova. âÄúWorkers in that region have been struggling to defend the right to organize for decades in the apparel sector with virtually no success, and thereâÄôs been relentless repression of that right by employers throughout the region.âÄù The WRC is a nonprofit labor rights organization that works with universities to monitor labor conditions in factories around the world. The national student campaign led by United Students Against Sweatshops pressured more than 90 schools to cut or suspend their contracts with Russell Athletic. âÄúThis is something we see as a really crucial victory,âÄù USAS national organizer Jack Mahoney said. âÄúItâÄôs unprecedented in the global garment industry that a group of factory workers has been able to reverse a factoryâÄôs decision to shut down their factory in search of cheaper labor elsewhere.âÄù USAS employed traditional tactics like sit-ins and protests as well as utilizing social media sites like Facebook to create public awareness for the plight of the Honduran workers. Leaders of the unionizing efforts at the Choloma plant were targets of anonymous violent threats, which Nova said is âÄúa typical situation in Central America.âÄù Nova said Russell is the largest private employer in Honduras. The company employs more than 10,000 people across the country. The laid-off workers are expected to return to the factory in the early months of 2010. As part of the accord, Russell, whose parent company is Fruit of the Loom, has agreed to a joint oversight process between the company and the union to ensure that workersâÄô rights are being upheld. Nova extolled the universities that severed their ties with Russell. âÄúThereâÄôs no question that the agreements that have been reached are first and foremost a product of the very strong stand that universities around the country took, and Minnesota was one of the first,âÄù Nova said. However, not everyone is as eager to anoint the University as a steward of labor rights. Ashley Gaschk, a USAS regional organizer and a student at the University of Minnesota, Morris, said the UniversityâÄôs decision came about because of student action rather than the UniversityâÄôs social conscience. The WRC sent a letter to its affiliated universities on Oct. 10, 2008 stating that it had evidence that workersâÄô attempts to unionize factored into RussellâÄôs decision to close its Jerzees de Honduras plant. The UniversityâÄôs Trademark Code of Conduct states that âÄúlicensees shall recognize and respect the right of employees to freedom of association and collective bargaining.âÄù The University made the decision to drop its contract with Russell four months after receiving the WRCâÄôs letter. âÄúIt was only because of students making life difficult for the University of Minnesota that that even happened,âÄù Gaschk said. University students delivered a pair of cardboard scissors to President Bob BruininksâÄô office last February encouraging the University to cut its contract with Russell. Rotenberg said he could not recall how long the University took to make the decision to terminate its contract with Russell, but that any delay could be attributed to evaluating varying reports and the companyâÄôs response.