After protests and campaigning by student groups across the country — including USC’s Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation — Russell Athletic has decided to
rehire about 1,200 workers in Honduras who were fired after they unionized.
The campaign against Russell Athletic, which provides athletic clothing and gear for USC, was a major part of SCALE’s efforts to ensure USC works with companies that conduct fair labor practices. SCALE made an unsuccessful attempt to get USC to sever its licensing agreement with Russell Athletic when the company came under scrutiny for closing down its plant in Choloma, Honduras last year.
United Students Against Sweatshops, a nationwide student organization of which SCALE is an affiliate, also worked to mobilize students whose universities had ties with Russell Athletic. Now, organizations like SCALE and USAS have posted a victory with the rehiring of the workers and the re-opening of the factory,
“It’s really encouraging,” said Elias Kohn, a member of SCALE and a sophomore majoring in sociology. “It seems like you’re going against these far away ideas and the fact that the Russell campaign worked is a very positive thing for all of us.”
Elisabeth Gustafson, a member of SCALE and a junior majoring in history, said that when it became apparent that SCALE could not convince the university to sever ties with Russell Athletic, the group focused on pushing for USC to affiliate with the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent monitor of the global garment industry that was conducting an investigation into Russell’s activities.
“The WRC is mentioned as a major factor along with USAS in getting Russell to re-open its factory,” Gustafson said. “Now that there’s proof the WRC got Russell Athletic to change its policies, we hope we can convince the university to join the organization.”
USC is already a member of the Fair Labor Association, a separate watchdog organization, but some members of SCALE and USAS say the FLA is not as effective as the WRC because it has “conflicts of interest” in its organization.
“We base a lot of our information on WRC investigations,” said Jack Mahoney, a national organizer of USAS. “FLA has had apparel corporations as paying members and on its leadership board, so the FLA will not be able to give as accurate information as the WRC.”
Matthew Curran, the director of trademark licensing and social responsibility at USC, said the university was still in talks with SCALE to consider whether the university will join the WRC.
“Between our membership with the FLA and our own internal monitoring program, we need to see what additional value the WRC would add to the programs we already have above and beyond what we’re currently doing,” Curran said.
Earlier this semester, the group met with Curran and other members of the administration to discuss the university’s relationship with the FLA. Kohn said group members plan to meet again before the end of the semester to convince the university to join the WRC.
Gustafson said that since Russell Athletic had agreed to re-open the factory, SCALE did not see the need for immediate investigations, but she did say that the group will continue to work with USAS and WRC to ensure that Russell follows through on its commitments.
After having made some headway in the Russell Athletic case, SCALE now wants to focus its efforts on the needs of USC workers on campus.
“In addition to the campaign to have USC join the WRC, SCALE is interested in building the relationships between students and workers,” Gustafson said. “Workers at USC feel they work for students on campus, and we want them to feel open coming to SCALE and asking for our support.”
The organization is planning to campaign for tuition remission for the children of janitors on campus, who work for USC’s subcontractor Aramark.
It also plans to accompany the workers on regular delegations and meetings with the USC administration to ensure the university maintains its fair labor practices.
Although he was thrilled with Russell Athletic’s decision to rehire the workers, Kohn said SCALE needs to continue its fight for laborers’ rights.
“One success isn’t a reason to stop fighting for more,” Kohn said.