Schools Score Points by Standing Up for Workers

In the recent Super Bowl, the Steelers and Cardinals showed that, amid the marketing hype, big time sports still have the power to bring us unique moments of human drama. Also last week, in a less-visible but perhaps more significant action, perennial basketball contenders Duke and Georgetown showed that, with some exercise of moral leadership, those in the business of sports also have the power to advance human rights. Responding to news that Russell Athletic, a leading U.S. apparel manufacturer, had shut down a factory in Honduras in retaliation for workers having organized a union, the two schools, along with others such as Columbia, Miami, Rutgers and Wisconsin, announced that they are discontinuing the company's license to put their logos on its sweatshirts.

In a time when university endowments have been hard hit by market declines, forgoing licensing revenues could not have been easy. But the moral dimensions of the choice could not be clearer: Russell's violations of labor rights at its Honduran plants, where workers average less than $1.50 per hour, are the worst recently reported in Central America. Its recent decision to close the plant -- which was announced only days after workers rejected a four cent per day wage increase from the company -- followed prior incidents where the company fired over 140 workers for simply joining a union. Those earlier events prompted several schools that, like Duke and Georgetown, have codes of conduct concerning the rights of workers making their logo apparel to threaten termination of Russell's licenses -- until the company offered reinstatement with back-pay to employees.

Though Russell claimed to schools that the closure was due to the global economic crisis, two independent investigations in Honduras told a different story. Russell managers, including its regional H.R. director, on over 100 occasions, made statements indicating that the plant would close because workers formed a union. When asked by fellow managers if Russell would accept government mediation of the labor dispute, the regional director reportedly responded in the negative "at the same time that he ran his hand along his neck, making the traditional sign of beheading."

To make matters worse, because union leaders have been blamed for Russell's decision to close, they have faced death threats inside the plant and in their community. A petition seeking to protect their safety is before the OAS' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

To quote Yogi Berra, this is déjà vu all over again. When, in the mid-1990s, I and others in Congress criticized the lack of protections for workers -- here and abroad -- in trade deals being pressed with developing countries, we were told that U.S. trade and investment would raise labor standards and promote human rights because our companies would pursue responsible practices and advocate the rule of law. As the unlawful firings and, now, the retaliatory shutdown at Russell's Honduran plant show, the results for workers have been far less rosy.

In case after case, textile manufacturers like Russell, after shifting production to Central America, have fiercely resisted -- by means legal and illegal -- efforts by workers to form unions, just as they did for decades here in the United States. (Anyone remember Norma Rae?) Their intransigence has found fertile ground in countries like Honduras, where taking a stand for a basic right like joining a union has, too often, meant taking one's life in one's hands. The atmosphere of impunity is exacerbated by weak legal sanctions: even when government inspectors came around, Russell refused them entrance, with no more than a slap on the wrist.

That's why the universities' actions are so important. Russell has a code of conduct which is supposed to guarantee respect for worker rights. Evidently, such codes are just pieces of paper to companies like Russell, but they mean something more to those schools that recognize a responsibility to set an example of ethical leadership. Unless companies that violate such codes are held accountable, in a way that shows up on their bottom line, these commitments are just false promises to the workers they are supposed to protect.

In December, I wrote to Warren Buffett, the world's wealthiest man, and CEO of Russell's parent company, Berkshire Hathaway, asking him to look into this case. As of yet, Mr. Buffett has not replied. Maybe once a few more schools follow Duke and Georgetown, someone at Berkshire Hathaway will take notice.

David Bonior is Chairman of American Rights at Work. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1976 to 2002, including ten years as House Democratic Whip.