Anti-Sweatshop Univ. Consortium Turns to Cooperation with Industry

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Sun Apr 30 11:47:17 PDT 2000

[Via Michael Eisenscher. Heavens, a living wage and surprise inspections, how onerous!]

Sweatshop Watchdogs Urge Cooperation By John Kelly Associated Press Writer Saturday, April 29, 2000; 6:01 a.m. EDT

PARK RIDGE, Ill. -- If the Worker Rights Consortium wants to improve conditions at foreign factories where college sports apparel is made, it needs to work with the manufacturers, universities involved in the new anti-sweatshop group say.

Delegates from 37 schools met at the Big Ten Conference headquarters and agreed the watchdog group should give universities more than three seats on its 12-member governing board, and should find ways to cooperate with the industry.

"We have to put these issues on the table if this organization is going to work," said Larry Mann, associate chancellor of the University of Illinois.

Labor practices at foreign factories under contract to shoe and sportswear makers have come under criticism from universities across the country. Forty-seven schools have joined the consortium, many after student protests.

The WRC is meeting resistance from corporations such as Nike, which has vowed not to permit surprise inspections desired by the WRC's student founders. Nike also has dropped out of contracts with schools that joined the WRC.

Nike spokesman Vada Manager said contract disputes that ended deals with the University of Michigan and Brown University are related to terms of the individual contracts - not the schools' decisions to join the WRC.

And last week, Nike Chairman Phil Knight withdrew plans to donate $30 million to his alma mater, the University of Oregon, after that school joined the consortium.

University officials at Friday's meeting said they are not pushing to give manufacturers seats on the governing board. But consensus is building to give industry leaders a chance to be partners in the effort - instead of adversaries.

"The students have made it clear they don't want industry representation on the board, but we have to decide what's an acceptable alternative," said Melany Newby, vice chancellor at the University of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin joined the WRC after student protests. The school withdrew from another monitoring group, the Fair Labor Association, which activists criticized because its board includes heavy representation from apparel-makers.

Among Nike's problems with the WRC is a demand for companies to provide workers an undefined "living wage" and calls for surprise inspections.

"They seem to have set up a system of 'gotcha' monitoring," Manager said. Nike prefers the attitude of the Fair Labor Association, which "sits down with the companies to talk about issues and rectify problems together."

Maria Roeper, a former student activist at Haverford College who is now the coordinator of the New York-based WRC, said that while students would likely oppose any industry seats on the board, she doubts students would oppose the position that several university officials repeated during Friday's meeting - "engaging the industry."

Roeper said she also was encouraged by the number of schools that sent representatives to the meeting - a sign they are serious about the WRC's mission.

Several schools that are not yet members sent delegates to observe, including Notre Dame.


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