TAMPA — In recent months, 19 of the nation's best-known universities have cut their ties to clothing maker Russell Athletic.
Harvard, Penn State, Georgetown, Duke, Purdue, the University of Michigan — all have revoked Russell's license to print their logos on its sweat pants and T-shirts.
The colleges say the company retaliated against workers in Honduras who joined a union by closing their factory. Russell denies it.
If it gains momentum, the movement could cost the company millions in lost business. But so far, Florida's public universities have not joined in.
The University of South Florida says Russell's response to the allegations will determine whether USF renews the company's license after March 2010.
"This is a university that's committed to fair labor practices," USF spokeswoman Vickie Chachere said. "They're going to be holding Russell accountable."
Florida State University also says it's too early to decide. And the University of Florida says it is working on the issue through its relationship with Russell.
Russell concedes its managers made mistakes that interfered with workers' rights to join a union at its Jerzees de Honduras factory.
But the company insists it closed the factory in October solely because of a falling demand for its clothing.
"We are not anti-union," Russell executive vice president Gary Barfield said. "We are pro-employee."
The company closed eight factories, cutting 8,000 workers, because of the economic downturn, according to Russell executives. The Jerzees de Honduras plant was its only unionized plant anywhere. But it also was the only factory with a short-term lease the company could get out of quickly, saving more than $2 million.
"We cannot attest to every conversation that went on in our (Jerzees de Honduras) plant," Russell spokeswoman Catherine Gammon said in an e-mail to the Times. "If any of the anti-union sentiment that's common in this country did surface, that's inexcusable.
"Management did not know about it," she said, "we did not condone it, and we certainly never encouraged it."
That's not what a university watchdog group has concluded.
The nonprofit Workers Rights Consortium consists of 186 universities nationwide. It was formed in 2000 following student protests over sweatshop conditions in factories where university merchandise was made.
In a report in November, the consortium described widespread complaints of intimidation at Russell's plant.
Managers threatened to close the plant because of the union, according to the consortium's investigation.
And twice, it said, the in-plant union president returned from lunch to his machine and found notes saying, "You're going to die because it is your fault, your fault that the factory is closing."
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For the universities, the stakes in this controversy vary.
Last year, USF earned about $6,100 in royalties and campus bookstore sales from Russell. At UF, Russell revenue last year totaled $29,500. And FSU's annual revenue from Russell have ranged from $11,000 to $25,200 over the last three years.
But for Russell, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, the college market is worth millions.
The company says it doesn't discuss its finances. But in 2006, it said its licenses with about 380 universities were assets worth nearly $16.5 million.
Russell has been criticized before for its labor practices. In 2007, the company fired 145 workers for union activity at the Jerzees de Honduras factory and a sister facility.
"Russell's campaign of repression of freedom of association at these two plants was among the most brazen and systematic" the Workers Rights Consortium said it had ever seen.
Russell later rehired many of the employees, paid back wages and recognized the unions at the two plants.
The nonprofit Fair Labor Association also has issued a report raising concerns about Russell's actions.
The association's members include universities and manufacturers, including Russell. It found the factory closing was "principally a business decision determined by economic factors." But because of the 2007 firings, the association said it was "deeply concerned by this pattern of alleged violations of the workers' right to freedom of association."
It urged Russell to take nine steps, including helping displaced workers and disciplining managers who made threats.
USF and UF say they plan to monitor Russell's response.
Along with pledging to act on each recommendation, Russell says it treats employees as a valued asset. Its factories in Honduras pay an average of 26 percent above the country's minimum wage. They are air-conditioned and offer health care, including prenatal care, paid holidays and vacations and cafeterias with "healthy lifestyle" menus.
Barfield said the campaign to persuade universities to cut their ties to Russell could hurt those very workers. If business goes down even further, he said, "it could displace more employees."
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Florida's public universities are not exactly being pushed to act on this issue, either by student activism or alumni indignation.
In response to public records requests, USF, FSU and the University of Florida came up with a total of one letter that any of them had received on the topic.
"I am more proud of the University of Miami than I am of the University of Florida," Albert Losch Jr. of Gainesville wrote UF president Bernard Machen. "Why would a University of Florida alumnus say such blasphemy?"
Because the private University of Miami was the first in the nation to sever its ties with Russell. The decision was made by Mel Tenen, the university's assistant vice president for auxiliary services.
"The university has a very strict labor code of conduct that our nearly 400 licensees must abide by," he said. "Among the most important principles of our code of conduct are the freedom and right to associate with a labor union."
For Tenen, what the Workers Rights Consortium reported was a clear violation of the code. Tenen also said he has strong personal beliefs about the importance of treating workers fairly.
That's partly because his parents "sweated and toiled for many years under ruthless working conditions" in forced labor camps at Dachau and Auschwitz, he said.
Both lost spouses, and his father lost four children in the Holocaust. He grew up hearing the stories.
"I made a decision as an administrator as to what was the right thing to do," he said. "I would be lying if my passion and my background did not enter into that decision. … I believe in doing what's right."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.