Sorry, Russell … your stuff isn’t worth buying right now

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The Associated Press

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It’s wall-to-wall “Veritas” at the Coop, the Harvard Square landmark with an entire floor devoted to T-shirts and sweatshirts, hats and scarves, jackets and boxer shorts with the school’s name and insignia.

They sell clothes for the law school, the business school, even down-river rival MIT. Most of Harvard’s athletic teams are represented — in crimson, of course, but also gray and white and blue.

Yet nothing there is made by Russell Athletic.

Joining a growing number of U.S. schools, Harvard severed ties with Russell after two watchdog groups said the Atlanta-based clothing-maker harassed pro-union Honduran employees. According to the Workers Rights Consortium, a group that monitors labor conditions abroad for colleges, Russell spent two years trying to intimidate workers who attempted to unionize before closing the factory when they did.

“They’re well on their way to being the first company in history to be kicked out of collegiate sports because of their labor practices,” said Scott Nova, the executive director of the WRC. “I can’t imagine their affiliates will be too happy about that, which includes the NBA and the NFL and others.”

Russell says it announced the closure of the factory last October due to falling demand for the fleece sewn there. The company said it picked the union plant in Choloma because it had a month-to-month lease and cost $2 million less to close than the non-union alternative.

The company said that earlier anti-union actions, including the firing of 145 workers detailed in reports by the WRC and the industry-sponsored Fair Labor Association, were taken by local management. Russell is taking steps to fix such problems, company officials said.

“We acknowledge that management mistakes were made,” said Matt Murphy, a senior vice president in charge of licensing. “We will ultimately prove that Russell Athletic is sincere in its approach … and that these schools will see that and want to become partners with us again. We will need to give them a reason to do that.”


So far, the pledge has failed to persuade administrators not only at Harvard, a school sometimes derided as “Moscow on the Charles” for its liberal slant, but at Montana and Montana State, at five Big Ten universities and at least eight of the 64 schools playing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Eighteen major universities of the 186 colleges affiliated with the WRC have dropped
Russell as a licensee. In announcing its decision, Cornell cited WRC and FLA reports that “concluded that the closing of the factory… which was described by Russell as an
economic decision, was also due in part to anti-union animus.”

“Cornell is committed to respecting the rights of workers around the world and we expect the companies that are licensed to produce Cornell apparel to share that commitment,” said Mike Powers, director of operations for Cornell University Communications. “Russell’s actions in this case are a clear violation of the codes of conduct that Cornell licensees agree to follow.”

Licensing deals allow manufacturers to print clothing with colleges’ trademarks. The
value to the school depends on whether it’s a few hats or an entire clothing line, but
Cornell spokesman Simeon Moss said sales of Russell gear on the Ithaca, N.Y., campus
totaled about $500,000 per year; the school collects about 8 percent as a licensing
fee.

Murphy declined to comment on how much the lost licenses would cost the company,
a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom Inc., owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Russell also sponsors the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Falcons’ training camp, the St. Louis Rams cheerleaders, Little League Baseball and the WNBA. The company’s Web site notes that several schools — including Princeton and hometown Georgia Tech — will continue to license the company.

But another problem could come from national chains that expect their suppliers to offer every major team so, for example, a Tar Heels fan living in California can buy North Carolina gear at his local Dick’s Sporting Goods.

“It’s not clear how long Russell will be able to do business with these stores when they can’t provide them with any of the major schools,” Nova said.

Fair labor practices became a national issue in the 1990s with accusations that the Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line sold at Wal-Mart was manufactured in sweatshop conditions — in the same Honduran city as the shuttered Russell plant.

Manufacturers Nike and adidas — and, later, Russell — responded by creating and funding the FLA to monitor compliance with a labor practices code. But student groups, who had pressured their schools to include fair labor provisions in their licensing agreements, wanted an independent monitor and the WRC was created.

Both groups began investigating Russell’s labor practices in Honduras in 2007 after the firing of the 145 pro-union employees.

“To be sure, there had been some problems surrounding union recognition earlier in 2007,” Russell said in “The Other Side of the Story,” a response posted on its Web site. “We acknowledged some local managers had acted improperly at times, and we rehired workers and paid back wages.”

Even Nova wrote to praise the company’s reversal, a period he now calls “a brief and partial respite in the campaign of repression.”

While Nova’s group believes that the factory was closed to bust the union, the industry-sponsored FLA found that the decision could be explained by valid financial reasons.

Harvard’s announcement said it would relicense Russell if the company adhered to FLA recommendations, which include a public statement in support of the workers’ right to unionize; retraining or rehiring workers laid off from the factory and disciplining managers who harassed pro-union workers.

Powers said Cornell is also open to welcoming Russell back.

“We will be watching with great interest as they work through this process,” he said.

Russell Athletic: http://www.russellsocialresponsibility.com/pdf/other–side–story.pdf

Workers Rights Consortium: http://www.workersrights.org/RussellRightsViolations.asp

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