President DeGioia Addresses Nike Labor Disputes
Letter to Nike stresses worker rights in factories

DANNY SMITH/THE HOYA The Georgetown University basketball team currently wears Nike apparel; Nike has been accused of violating workers' rights.

DANNY SMITH/THE HOYA
The Georgetown University basketball team currently wears Nike apparel; Nike has been accused of violating workers’ rights.

Following an extended campaign spearheaded by student-athletes and the recommendations of the university’s Licensing Oversight Committee over the past few months, University President John J. DeGioia submitted a letter to Nike last week emphasizing the importance of Georgetown’s code of conduct and calling on the apparel producer to cooperate with the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring body.

Nike is the only university contract that does not currently stipulate that the licensee abide by the university’s code of conduct, which in addition to ethical, environmental and workers’ rights clauses, stipulates that licensees must comply with the university-affiliated independent auditor Workers Rights Consortium. The Workers Rights Consortium works to enforce the university’s code of conduct.

The recommendations, submitted by members of the LOC to DeGioia in late March 2016, focus on Nike signing on to the university’s code of conduct, and that Nike open up its factories to the WRC.

“These recommendations included revising Nike’s license agreement to include the current Code of Conduct for Georgetown University Licensees, and writing a letter to Nike requesting that Nike facilitate the WRC’s access to Nike contract factories producing collegiate apparel,” Director of Business Policy and Planning and LOC member Cal Watson wrote in an email to The Hoya.

Neither the recommendations nor DeGioia’s letter have been released to the public.

The recommendations also stipulate that the university not renew its licensing agreement with Nike in its current form, which expires in 2017, and for the university to make public a description of the actions it takes on these recommendations.

The LOC’s recommendations and DeGioia’s decision follow months of awareness campaigns by students organized under Athletes and Advocates for Workers’ Rights as well as the ongoing work of the LOC, a multi-stakeholder body of faculty, administrators and students, into Georgetown’s contract and licensing agreements with the apparel brand.

According to AAWR lead organizer and LOC member Jake Maxmin (COL ’17) the timing of the recommendations and DeGioia’s letter, just as Nike’s contract with the university is about to expire, is critical.

“The big thing for us is for Nike to oblige by our code of conduct. The upcoming end date [of the contract in early 2017] has given us some leverage with them,” Maxmin said.

According to professor of government and LOC member John Kline, the LOC first realized the discrepancy between Nike’s contract and that of other licensees when it began looking into writing a letter to the company in November 2015 following Nike’s decision, after a series of worker strikes at their factories in Hansae, Vietnam, to bar WRC auditors from investigating the factories.

“We had been informed of Nike’s position regarding the Hansae factory in Vietnam. This is something the LOC would normally write a letter to the licensee about. As we looked into doing that we found out that Nike was not contractually obligated to follow the Georgetown code of conduct,” Kline said.

Georgetown has been a member of the WRC since its founding in 2000, when the university left the Fair Labor Association following the recommendations of the LOC and the organizing efforts of members of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee. Nike subsequently sent a letter to university contract holders to explain its position on barring the WRC from entry into its factories.

“Their position is that they only work with ‘certified auditors’— their own auditors, the FLA or the International Labor Organization,” Kline said. “Nike’s next communication with universities listed their arguments and restated their policy and asked universities to respond.”

At the same time that the LOC began researching the university’s contract with Nike, student-athletes and other advocates began organizing their own campaign against Nike, following a justice and peace studies class taught by professor Eli McCarthy, which included watching activist Jim Keady’s documentary on Nike sweatshop abuses. Students in the class, including AAWR leader Isabelle Teare (COL ’17), subsequently organized an on-campus presentation with Keady.

“After I gave my lecture, I was approached by a handful of athletes who wanted to learn more and know what they could practically do to impact the lives of workers and use their position as student-athletes to be a voice for factory workers, most of whom are women their own age,” Keady said.

Student-athletes and allies began organizing soon after in collaboration with United Students Against Sweatshops, a national, student-led grassroots organization fighting for the labor rights of workers. In November 2015, AAWR submitted a letter to DeGioia urging the university to cut its ties with Nike. This was followed by student-athletes and AAWR members also taping over the Nike swoosh logo on their uniforms in a widespread social media campaign, as well meetings between AAWR organizers and university administrators, and awareness campaigns, including bringing former Nike garment worker Noi Supelai to campus in March to discuss her experience in the factories in Northern Thailand.

“They learned a lot in a short amount of time and they did it with an absolute passion,” Keady said. “The situation with Nike’s refusal to allow WRC auditors into its factories was timely and the students jumped on it and have effectively used Georgetown’s institutional power to leverage pressure on one of the largest corporations in the world.”

The AAWR has also received support on campus from the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, which works to develop strategy to support workers, and university faculty members, 30 of whom signed a letter written by McCarthy and submitted to DeGioia in support of the AAWR’s efforts.

“What’s special about Georgetown is that faculty have been really important, which shows that this is really embedded within the Georgetown community, this commitment to independent monitoring,” USAS national organizer Morgan Currier said.

While GSC members have been in talks with the AAWR, they have thus far refrained from partnering with them, focusing instead on their ongoing Work With Dignity campaign in solidarity with campus workers. GSC member Lily Ryan (COL ’18) who also serves on the LOC, said she sees the AAWR campaign as complimentary to GSC’s work on campus.

“The point of the campaign has been focused on campus workers but looking at Georgetown’s supply chain is just as important. We can’t pretend to be a university that prides itself on social justice and transparency if we’re not aware of how our brand is being produced and really not be afraid to put pressure on companies when we feel they’re not ethically producing merchandise,” Ryan said.

Georgetown, like many universities, has a long and complex relationship with the sports apparel giant, possessing extensive licensing and sponsorship contracts. Not only do Georgetown varsity athletes compete in Nike apparel, but Georgetown has the largest contract in the country with Air Jordan, a Nike affiliate. Furthermore, former basketball coach John Thompson Jr. currently sits on Nike’s board of directors.

“Georgetown cares a lot about Nike, but we can only hope that universities are putting social justice and workers rights before profit and making that a standard of these contracts. [Universities] spend months negotiating the nitty gritty over branding, funding, who gets what. Human rights and workers’ rights should be one of those important criteria that they’re negotiating over,” Currier said.

Georgetown is one of several universities that have begun to take action on this issue. Student organizers at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Cornell University, University of Washington and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, respectively, have all pressured university administrators to remove Nike from campus.

“This isn’t just a Georgetown fight,” Teare said.

The uniqueness of Georgetown’s campaign, Currier holds, lies in the power that Georgetown has a founding member of the WRC with administrators sitting on its board as well as being a movement led by athletes.

“The athlete aspect is very specific to Georgetown – these are the folks that are wearing these products and they didn’t want to be a walking billboard for a brand that doesn’t allow independent monitoring,” Currier said.

For now, members of the LOC and AAWR must wait for Nike’s response before pursuing further action, which, according to Klein, may stretch well into the summer.

“Before the end of the year, Nike’s contract will expire. I doubt the negotiation will occur between now and graduation but committee members around during summer will try to follow up. What happens beyond that will depend on whether or not Nike chooses to accept these contract stipulations,” Klein said. “It’s hard to conceive of how Georgetown athletic teams would continue to wear Nike gear if they don’t have the logo on the gear.”

Ryan echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the need for the university to continue to pressure Nike.

“Nike’s a big corporation and I think they have a lot of power. I’m not sure how much of a priority this is for them — we really need to put the pressure on them,” Ryan said.

In the case that Nike does agree to the stipulations set forth, McCarthy holds that there is still more work to be done particularly by the student activists raising awareness about these issues.

“If they do say ‘okay,’ great,” McCarthy said. “But the WRC isn’t the only issue with Nike — the wages, the restricted union, the treatment of workers. It will largely be up to the students who’ve been working on it as to what makes the most sense, what they have the energy for.”

Hoya Staff Writer Suzanne Monyak contributed reporting. 

 

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