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Labor Fight Ends in Win for Students

by Steven Greenhouse

The anti-sweatshop movement at dozens of American universities, from Georgetown to U.C.L.A., has had plenty of idealism and energy, but not many victories.

Isaac Steiner/United Students Against Sweatshops Until now.

The often raucous student movement announced on Tuesday that it had achieved its biggest victory by far. Its pressure tactics persuaded one of the nation's leading sportswear companies, Russell Athletic, to agree to rehire 1,200 workers in Honduras who lost their jobs when Russell closed their factory soon after the workers had unionized.

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.

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.

"It's a very important breakthrough," said Mel Tenen, who oversees licensing agreements for the University of Miami, the first school to sever ties with Russell. "It's not often that a major licensee will take such a necessary and drastic step to correct the injustices that affected its workers. This paves the way for us to seriously consider reopening our agreement with Russell."

Other colleges are expected to do the same. Analysts say the college market occupies a significant part of Russell's business. Because Fruit of the Loom does not detail Russell's sales, it is not known how large a part.

In its agreement, not only did Russell agree to reinstate the dismissed workers and open a new plant in Honduras as a unionized factory, it also pledged not to fight unionization at its seven existing factories there.

Mike Powers, a Cornell official who is on the board of the Worker Rights Consortium, said Cornell had canceled its licensing agreement because it viewed Russell's closing of the Honduras factory as a flagrant violation of the university's code of conduct, which calls for honoring workers' freedom of association. He applauded Russell's agreement, which was reached with the consortium and union leaders in Honduras over the weekend.

"This is a landmark event in the history of workers' rights and the codes of conduct that we expect our licensees to follow," Mr. Powers said. "My hat is off to Russell."

John Shivel, a spokesman for Russell and Fruit of the Loom, said, "We are very pleased with the agreement between Russell Athletic and the Workers Rights Consortium, and look forward to its implementation."

He declined to discuss why Russell had adopted a friendlier attitude toward unionization after years of aggressively fighting unions.

In a statement Russell released jointly with the apparel workers' union in Honduras, the company said the agreement was "intended to foster workers' rights in Honduras and establish a harmonious" relationship.

"This agreement represents a significant achievement in the history of the apparel sector in Honduras and Central America," the joint statement said.

In the past, the Honduran workers condemned Russell's behavior, saying that it had fired 145 workers in 2007 for supporting a union. The union's vice president, Norma Mejia, said at a Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting last May that she had received death threats for helping lead the union. Russell denied the assertion.

Union leaders in Honduras hailed the agreement, which would put hundreds of laid-off employees back to work in a country whose economy has been hit by a political crisis over who will lead it.

"For us, it was very important to receive the support of the universities," Moises Alvarado, president of the union at the closed plant in Choloma, said by telephone on Tuesday. "We are impressed by the social conscience of the students in the United States."

This was in no way an overnight victory - it came after 10 years of building a movement that persuaded scores of universities to adopt detailed codes of conduct for the factories used by licensees like Russell. In addition, the students, sometimes through lengthy sit-ins, pressured their officials to create and finance an independent monitoring group, the Worker Rights Consortium, that inspected factories to make sure they complied with the universities' codes.

When the consortium issued a detailed report accusing Russell of violating workers' rights, United Students Against Sweatshops began its nationwide campaign.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which has more than 170 universities as members, said: "This represents the maturation of the universities' codes of conduct. There's a recognition by the universities of their ability to influence the actions of important brands and change outcomes for the better."

He said the agreement was "unprecedented" in terms of scope and size and in "the transformative impact it can have in one of the hardest regions of the world to win respect for workers' rights."

Mr. Nova also praised Russell for changing course. "I think the executives at Russell recognized it was time for a new approach," he said. "They decided it was important for the success of their company."

As part of its campaign, United Students Against Sweatshops contacted students at more than 100 campuses where it did not have chapters, getting them involved, including at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where Fruit of the Loom has its headquarters. The group helped arrange a letter signed by 65 members of Congress, who voiced "grave concern about reports of severe violations" of labor rights at Russell.

This time around, the students did not feel the need to resort to sit-ins to persuade university administrators.

"The schools remember our sit-ins of the past," said Dida El-Sourady, a senior at the University of North Carolina. "There's an institutional memory that students will escalate their tactics, and this could become a very big deal, a lot bigger than people holding signs."

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