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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Fleecing the facts on the Russell case

    As soon as the elevator doors opened, I knew we were in trouble. Either that, or we hold more weight than I thought, counting the one – two – in all five vice-presidents and lawyers from Fruit of the Loom who met with President Shelton on April 15.

    These suits – no frumpy academic corduroy here – don’t visit on a whim. It wasn’t coincidental that the day before, two Honduran garment workers and union leaders met with Shelton, denouncing Russell Athletic (owned by Fruit) for labor rights violations and asking him to cut our contract with Russell. As someone present at both meetings I’d like to lay out the claims on this case.

    The issue is whether Russell violated codes of conduct for university-logo clothing in its recent closure of the Jerzees de Honduras (JDH) factory. It shut down days after the first round of bargaining with a union. Just months before Russell apologized for firing 28 plant workers and 118 workers at a sister factory for union sympathies. That plant also closed, raising the question: Did Russell close these factories to bust the union?

    In their meeting with Shelton, the Honduran workers explained they started to organize after benefits were cut and work quotas increased drastically two years ago. The union survived the firings of supporters, getting many people rehired or compensated with help from American university students pressuring their colleges. Last year they negotiated with Russell for higher wages and more benefits. They were going to arbitration when Russell announced the closure. They had been repeatedly warned by managers the factory would close before it accepted any union. Few if any of the 1,800 employees have been rehired by Russell’s other plants. The workers said their ‘benefits package’ consists of “”sewing and beauty classes.”” Shelton, to his credit, asked, “”How can we have the greatest influence on Russell?”” to which they answered, “”Only by cutting your contract.””

    The Russell executives claimed the closure was for economic reasons, declining demand for fleece that JDH made. They saved $2 million in rent by closing JDH instead of Russell’s Tela factory, a non-unionized fleece plant. But under questioning, Russell backed off of the “”fleece hypothesis,”” admitting the whole garment sector is depressed and that JDH made more than fleece (as the workers maintained). The “”Cahn report,”” done for the Fair Labor Association (FLA) which monitors labor rights for the UA, showed that only 20 percent of JDH’s capacity was in basic fleece pants, the product Russell cites as evidence for an inventory glut.

    Cahn also found Russell only needed to reduce fleece capacity by 30 percent of JDH, not the entire plant, to match current reduced demand. One month before the closure, Cahn documents ‘dramatically higher’ production at JDH compared to Tela, which had a ‘lack of product demand …’ The Cahn report concludes by saying, “” … the decision of the company appears rational but the evidence examined was not conclusive.””

    What about evidence of anti-union activity? Russell executives said in their meeting with Shelton no one was fired for union activity at JDH, which is false -ÿ28 were. The FLA’s first report on labor rights at JDH found in favor of the company, but this report was so flawed the FLA did another investigation which found “”… the closure of the factory has been determined, at least to a significant extent, by the existence and activity of the union.”” The FLA has changed its stance on the case as pressure from universities has intensified. On Jan. 28, they said the “”decision to close JDH was principally a business matter”” even though they found “”many workers (both pro- and anti-union), supervisors and managers … assume that the establishment of the union at JDH would inevitably result in its closure.”” FLA thought this “”assumption became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.””

    Their crystal ball seems to have gotten cloudier since. On Feb. 12, the FLA wrote “”we cannot determine if anti-union sentiments and actions were the primary reason for the closure of the plant … “” The balance of evidence shows breaking the union was a reason for JDH’s closure.

    So what is the UA’s position? The Faculty Senate Labor Task Force says cut the contract. Shelton’s plan is to “”sit and think about this a lot, to continue to talk with the students, and then see how the timeline plays out, because Russell has a lot of things in place down there and I want to see if they can do it.”” It’s good to reflect before acting. Shelton’s had six months for that, though. Thirty-one other universities have already cut their contracts.

    The President needs to stop sitting and thinking and start leading. Because while he sits and thinks, unemployed mothers in Honduras are sitting and thinking too – how they’ll feed their kids, how much their furniture will pawn for. And while we wait, what do you think they think about us?

    -ÿBrian Marks is a Ph.D candidate in Geography and a member of the Sweatshop-Free Coalition. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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