UW caves after no-sweats protest

By Steve Leigh

SEATTLE--The University of Washington (UW) announced on February 24 that it is terminating its licensing agreement with the Russell Corp., which had produced UW clothing.

This came after a rally and brief occupation of UW President Mark Emmert's office earlier this month by members of the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP). The occupiers demanded the termination after Russell closed down a unionized factory in Hondura, Jerzees de Honduras.

Russell claimed he closure was for "economic reasons," but it closed its only unionized factory and kept open all its other factories. The Workers Rights Consortium, a labor rights monitoring group, issued a report in November charging that Russell was closing the factory in an effort to break the union.

The action by UW shows the momentum gathering behind SLAP's efforts. "This is a really big deal," SLAP member George Robertson told the UW Daily. He added:

This sets a huge precedent, because this is the first time in the history of the university where a contract has been cut based on labor rights violations. UW has always said they're a leader in labor rights, but this is the first time they've ever done anything about it.

SLAP is pleased that the UW terminated the contract, but feels it should have been done quicker. "It took them three months to take action. Had they taken action in October, the factory might have remained open," Robertson told the Daily.

This victory should give SLAP more energy to continue its monitoring of UW apparel contracts. SLAP is trying to get the UW to force Nike to live up to the Designated Suppliers Program of the Workers' Rights Consortium--or terminate that contract as well.

While UW claims to be concerned about labor rights, it so far has no compunction about laying off hundreds of employees and voiding the negotiated pay raise for its unionized workers in response to the Washington State budget crisis.

UW could avoid this by dipping into its endowment, worth over $1 billion. It could also provide funds to keep workers employed by cutting the salaries of its top administrators. Emmert, for example, makes nearly $1 million a year from his UW job--not to speak of other outside appointments.

Hopefully, the SLAP victory will help build the movement to protect workers around the world--and at UW itself.