February 20, 2012

Fear of commitment

The University should end its contract with Adidas, upholding its commitment to fair labor practices.

The following op-ed piece reflects the viewpoint of the RSO Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL).

When the University of Chicago allows a company to profit by manufacturing apparel with the university logo, it implicitly endorses and directly supports the producers of that apparel. That means that every hoodie, every backpack, every T-shirt with the University of Chicago logo printed on it represents a nod of approval on the part of the school and its community toward the labor practices that went into making that item. Do we, as students, really want to be a part of a system that allows corporations to commit worker rights abuses with no repercussions?

In 2005, the student body said no. Students staged a campaign that pressured the University to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent watchdog organization that monitors the labor practices of companies that produce university apparel. As an affiliate of the WRC, the University adopted a Code of Conduct for all companies that produce U of C apparel, holding them accountable for maintaining fair labor practices. Now, that commitment is being put to the test for the first time, but the University has shown no clear intention to follow through.

In the fall, the WRC contacted its affiliate schools with some news about Adidas. According to the WRC, PT Kizone, a factory in Indonesia, was shut down abruptly and its owner fled the country, failing to pay 2,800 workers at least $3.3 million in legally mandated severance. NIKE, Adidas, and the Dallas Cowboys Merchandising Group were producing logoed university apparel at this factory. For many years, these brands have profited from the work of their low-paid workers in Indonesia, and they owe these workers fair treatment in return. Adidas’ refusal to pay the money it owes to workers producing its apparel not only represents a grave violation of Indonesian law, but also of the University’s Licensing Code of Conduct. The University had in fact already made a commitment to cut its licensing contract with Adidas in response to these labor violations when it adopted the Code of Conduct. The agreement has been in place since 2005; all that is missing now is action.

Adidas’s actions warrant a dramatic response on the part of the University because other companies have shown a willingness to meet their obligations when faced with similar pressures. In response to the WRC contacting its affiliate universities, NIKE came forward and paid the workers at PT Kizone in proportion to their production at the factory—nearly half a million dollars. Adidas, however, has failed to pay the workers any of the money that it owes. Student groups at other schools across the country are running similar campaigns to make their schools pressure Adidas to pay its workers. NIKE was undoubtedly influenced to do this by the past “Just Pay It” campaign, wherein major universities dropped their licensing agreements with NIKE in order to pressure it to pay workers at a factory in Honduras. The success of that campaign depended on a domino effect beginning with just a few schools, and resulting in a wave of voided contracts. By cutting its licensing contract with Adidas, a well-regarded school like the University of Chicago would begin the same kind of domino effect—a series of losses that would push Adidas to correct its labor violations in Indonesia.

Since the end of fall quarter, members of SOUL have met with University administrators on three occasions, engaging in a dialogue about the Adidas situation. Over the course of this discussion, the administration has expressed a willingness to consider not renewing the Adidas contract when it comes up for consideration in June. However, it also expressed some concern about the ambiguity of the timeline of the situation as far as Adidas’s culpability is concerned. That said, the administration has itself expressed frustration with Adidas for failing to prove its innocence directly. This, in combination with the extensive evidence suggesting that Adidas has in fact breached the University Code of Conduct supplied by the WRC, should serve as ample reason to take strong action on the situation. SOUL appreciates the administration’s willingness to discuss the situation, but we now urge it to acknowledge Adidas’s breach of the Code of Conduct, and to respond accordingly by following through on the University’s commitment to end its contract with Adidas if the firm does not rectify the situation verifiably.

Ultimately, it is up to the members of the University of Chicago community to make sure that the University lives up to its commitment by taking away Adidas’s ability to profit using the U of C logo unless the firm fixes its violations. The University’s response to our first message asking President Zimmer to cut the Adidas contract concluded, “As you know, we share a long-standing commitment to fair labor practices.” Now is the time to prove it.