Students Win Big for Workers at Russell Athletic

Protest outside Target in Washington, DC. Photo by United Students Against Sweatshops.

Company agrees to reopen plant it shuttered after workers unionized

North Carolina has suffered tens of thousands of job losses to foreign competition. Once those jobs leave our shores, they don’t always stay in one place for long, as multinational corporations close shops and open new ones in a race to the bottom for labor.

It’s an unfortunate but familiar story for textile workers. The company sets up shop, working conditions and pay are poor, workers unionize for a better life, and the company closes the plant in search of cheaper, more exploitable labor elsewhere.

This time, however, that story has a different ending. When Atlanta-based sports apparel maker Russell Athletic lost a two year campaign to defeat the effort to form a union of 1,200 of its textile workers in Honduras, the company fired them all and closed the plant.

If Russell Athletic thought it could get away with it in Honduras, this week it was proven wrong, reports the News & Observer:

After widespread and prolonged student protests at U.S. universities, sports apparel maker Russell Athletic says it will open a new factory in Honduras and rehire ousted union workers as part of an agreement with a group that monitors labor conditions abroad for colleges.

Organized action against Russell Athletic, which began early this year, succeeded in large part because students persuaded their schools to end licensing agreements with Russell, reports the NY Times:

From the time Russell shut the factory last January, the anti-sweatshop coalition orchestrated a nationwide campaign against the company. Most important, the coalition, United Students Against Sweatshops, persuaded the administrations of Boston College, Columbia, Harvard, New York University, Stanford, Michigan, North Carolina and 89 other colleges and universities to sever or suspend their licensing agreements with Russell. The agreements — some yielding more than $1 million in sales — allowed Russell to put university logos on T-shirts, sweatshirts and fleeces.

Not only does the agreement between Russell Athletic and the union, the General Confederation of Workers, reopen the factory and rehire all the fired workers, the company has agreed to neutrality at its other plants in Honduras, including those of its parent company, Fruit of the Loom. Read the details here.

Celebrating the victory, United Students Against Sweatshops posted the following on its web site:

“This is one of the most significant youth-led campaign victories in recent times and one of the most significant campaign victories of the global justice movement. No one has ever forced a multinational corporation to reopen a facility it shut down in the global race to the bottom. This victory has also proven that together, we can successfully fight back when those in power take advantage of the economic crisis to attack working people. We should take strength and inspiration from the example of the workers of Jerzees de Honduras.”