This past July, lawyers from Nike Inc. sat down and directly negotiated with representatives of the Central General de Trabajadores (CGT), the Honduran labor federation, and agreed to pay 1,800 laid-off Nike workers their legally-mandated severance pay after refusing to do so for 21 months. Let’s just stop and think about what this means.
Fifteen years ago, Nike became the face of sweatshops and the symbol of worker rights’ abuses in the international garment industry. Nike has used child labor, paid its workers dirt wages, forced its laborers to work in hazardous environments, actively prevented workers from forming unions, etc.
So in January 2009 when Nike closed two of its factories in Honduras and refused to pay its workers the $2.2 million in severance pay and back wages they were owed under Honduran law — this was a year Nike grossed over $19 billion in total revenue — it was merely business as usual for the multinational corporation.
However, the CGT contacted United Students Against Sweatshops, a national student group that worked to hold Nike accountable through the “Just Pay it Campaign.” This campaign stretched to dozens of universities across the country including Rutgers, Cornell, Brown, UCLA, University of Maryland and of course our very own University of Wisconsin.
On this campus, the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) led a student campaign to pressure UW to cut its contract with Nike over its workers’ rights violations. After an eight month fight, the university capitulated and ended the Badger licensing agreement with Nike, making us the first school in the world to ever cut a Nike contract over workers’ rights violations.
A few months later Cornell and Brown, both pressured by student campaigns, also promised to end their relationships with Nike if the violations were not remedied. A few months later, Nike — by far the largest player in the garment industry — gave in. This was a major win for student-worker power because this victory set an industry precedent by which brands are held accountable to both consumers and workers for their actions.
But there is more hope from the international garment industry: the launch of a new apparel brand Alta Gracia. Alta Gracia is one of the only brands in the world where the employer negotiates in good faith with the workers’ union and is the only brand in the world that pays its workers a living wage, four times higher than the industry standard.
Alta Gracia is showing up in university bookstores across the country and can be found right here on Library Mall.
Both of these victories demonstrate that workers and students are not powerless to stand up for social justice and against oppression. They mark a real landmark in the anti-sweatshop movement and foreshadow the potential of student-worker solidarity no matter if workers and students are separated by 8,000 miles or one classroom.
In light of all this good news, SLAC feels like we need to celebrate. So if you are interested, come to the Lincoln statue Friday October 1 at 1 p.m. for a little victory party (maybe Biddy will join in too).
Jonah Zinn (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in history and political science and a member of the Student Labor Action Coalition.