Students make Russell do the right thing

When we think of heartwarming tales it tends to be of the sort like Miracle on 34th Street, where little Susan Walker gets the house she wanted for Christmas after all, or It's a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey's neighbors and customers put self-interest aside to save his bank. Those are yummy treats of magical doings and brotherly compassion that the season inspires. But in real life happy endings don't often come so easily or tidily.

I'm about to share one of the most cockle-warming stories of the year, even though its happy conclusion was a long, tough slog and about a decade in the making.

This is a story about 1,200 workers in Honduras who were fired by their American corporate factory owner because they unionized. Then, something remarkable happened. They got their jobs back.

The Scrooge in this modern-day A Christmas Carol is Russell Athletic, America's leading sportswear company, owned by Fruit of the Loom. The visiting spirits who made Russell change its shriveled corporate heart are college students around the country, members of United Students Against Sweatshops.

In January, Russell shuttered one of eight apparel factories it owns in Honduras. It was the only plant with a union. Since then, USAS students have convinced nearly 100 colleges and universities to end or suspend their licensing agreements with Russell.

This blow to the bottom line was not inconsequential. The agreements allow Russell to put university names on T-shirts and other apparel that college students buy as wardrobe staples. Some of them were reportedly worth more than a $1 million in sales.

But those dollars flew out the corporate headquarter's window when the University of Miami (which was the first to sever ties), Harvard, New York University, North Carolina, Duke, the entire University of California system, and dozens of other major schools told Russell to either correct the injustice and respect the rights of its workers to organize or go away.

Lo and behold, Russell woke up one morning a changed entity, full of the milk of human kindness. Earlier this month it struck an agreement with the workers' union that reopens the factory, puts all the fired employees back to work, compensates them for lost wages and, in a startling reversal, promises the union access to its other apparel manufacturing plants in Honduras.

This is the same Russell that allowed its management and supervisors to regularly threaten workers that the plant would likely be closed if they brought in a union.

In one incident among many documented in a 36-page report by the Worker Rights Consortium, a group funded by universities to monitor the behavior of collegiate apparelmakers, a Russell supervisor said in a factory cafeteria that "the workers will starve because they got involved with a union." He said, "The owners will never accept a union." And, "These people from the union are going to be left eating s---." (Read the report at tinyurl.com/ykmxe3x.)

This is the same Russell that, in 2008 union contract negotiations, made a final offer of a raise for workers of four cents a day in 2009 and five cents a day in 2010. If that doesn't describe a classic miserly, exploitative Scrooge, what does?

But the happy ending did come. Russell did repent and reform its ways. And that good fortune may just spread. Russell is the largest private employer in Honduras and its watershed agreement may influence other workplaces in Central America.

So how did all this happen? How did nearly 100 universities agree to boycott Russell within such a short period of time?

Back in the late 1990s chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops started forming on college campuses with a mission to help empower working people around the world. Today, thanks to that activism, about 175 American colleges and universities have adopted manufacturing codes of conduct demanding that workers in factories that produce their apparel are treated fairly and decently.

When an investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium found that Russell had clearly breached this code, the universities had little choice but to say "adios." And so ends our tale of little-guy triumph and noble do-gooders persevering. If only all businesses felt such pressure to treat their people well. What glad tidings that would be.

Students make Russell do the right thing 11/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 28, 2009 3:30am]

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