A Big Step for Russell Athletics, A Giant Leap for Best Practices

On November 17th, 2009, United Students Against Sweatshops announced its historic victory against Russell Athletics with an agreement to reinstate 1200 Honduran workers that had been laid off when Jerzees de Honduras factory shutdown shortly after unionization.

The Case:

As outlined in the previous post by Mary Hanlon:  “Over a two-year period, Russell managers carried out a campaign of retaliation and intimidation in order to stop workers at two of the company’s Honduran factories from exercising their right to form a trade union and bargain collectively.”

Jerzees de Honduras which was directly owned and operated by Russell was one of the targeted factories.  A report by the Worker Rights Consortium details that:

“Prior to the closure announcement, the WRC, as part of an ongoing inquiry into code compliance at Jerzees de Honduras, had identified persistent violations of workers’ associational rights, including multiple threats from management personnel that the factory would close because of the decision of workers to exercise their right to unionize. The WRC brought these violations to the attention of Russell’s senior management in the United States on multiple occasions, but the problems continued. Thus, at the time of the closure announcement, on October 8, 2008, the WRC already possessed substantial credible evidence that the decision to close the facility was, at least in significant part, a product of ongoing animus by the company toward workers’ exercise of their associational rights. The WRC reported this to universities on October 10, 2008.”

In a letter addressed to their collegiate partners, Russell emphatically denies these accusations stating that:

“The recent decision to close Jerzees de Honduras (JDH) had nothing to do with unions. In fact, we previously recognized that plant’s union status on October 3, 2007 — more than a year prior to the closing. As the Fair Labor Association (FLA) noted in its report: “If the primary motive of the company had been to frustrate the union, it could have closed JDH earlier and even switched production from Honduras to Mexico.”

We made the painful decision to close this plant due to deteriorating economic conditions that caused a severe global slowdown in the demand for fleece products. We are not alone in facing a decline in business. Approximately 25 different Honduran factories closed in the last year, including many apparel manufacturers. Furthermore, JDH was our only facility with a lease that permitted us to vacate immediately. The choice was that black and white, and an independent investigation commissioned by the FLA found that basing our decision on the lease saved the company $2 million, enabling us to protect jobs in our other plants. It’s also important to note the decline in the apparel market forced us to announce the closure of seven other company facilities in the U.S. and Central America, all of which were non-union.”

The Movement:

Following the shut down of the factory, USAS successfully lobbied around 100 universities to terminate or suspend their licensing contracts with Russell Athletics.  According to the NYTimes, USAS used other pressure tactics and activist strategies:

“Going beyond their campuses, student activists picketed the N.B.A. finals in Orlando and Los Angeles this year to protest the league’s licensing agreement with Russell. They distributed fliers inside Sports Authority sporting goods stores and sent Twitter messages to customers of Dick’s Sporting Goods to urge them to boycott Russell products.

The students even sent activists to knock on Warren Buffett’s door in Omaha because his company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns Fruit of the Loom, Russell’s parent company.”

The students also worked with 65 members of Congress to draft a letter that expressed their “grave concern” and requested a response from the company to the allegations of misconduct.  The letter can be found here.

While USAS was working hard to bring attention to the issue, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) decided to conduct a series of investigations into the allegations against Russell.  In June, the FLA put Russell on a 90-day special review which “requires specific actions by Russell to address issues related to the closure of the Jerzees de Honduras factory and to be in good standing with the FLA.” The FLA then worked with Russell to create a remediation plan which the company must follow in order to be removed from special review status which was extended another 45 days.  This status continues until the end of the current special review period which will be in mid-December.

The Conclusion:

On November 17th, after a series of talks and negotiations a statement was released that stated:

“Russell Athletic and the union of workers of Jerzees de Honduras S.A. de C.V. SITRAJERZEESH and the General Confederation of Workers are pleased to announce the completion of an agreement that is intended to foster workers rights in Honduras and establish a harmonious and cooperative labor-management relationship. This agreement represents a significant achievement in the history of the apparel sector in Honduras and in Central America.”

Highlights of the agreement are Russell’s promises to reopen the factory, reinstate 1200 former workers and recognize SITRAJERZEESH.  Perhaps the most important promise is that of non-interference and union neutrality in all facilities owned by the company in Honduras.

Rod Palmquist, USAS International Campaign Co-ordinator, was quoted in the USAS press release describing the significance of this agreement:

“This is the first time we know of where a factory that was shut down to eliminate a union was later re-opened after a worker-activist campaign. This is also the first company-wide neutrality agreement in the history of the Central America apparel export industry – and it has been entered into by the largest private employer in Honduras, the largest exporter of t-shirts to the US market in the world.”

SA would like to congratulate everyone!!!  Thank you for your hard work to make an unjust situation right again.  This is an interesting example of work being done on multiple fronts to improve labour conditions.  While this conclusion only affects workers in Russell and Fruit of the Loom factories in Honduras, it may become a big step in best practices in the Central American apparel industry.

Nadira Lamrad

Nadira is the co-founder of Social Alterations. She is currently completing her final year as a PhD Candidate at City University of Hong Kong.

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