Sweating Out Apparel Protests

Three Florida universities, including USF, have signed purported anti-sweatshop pacts with an apparel industry-backed monitor. Will they also join a group promising tougher scrutiny of overseas factories?

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On April 19, Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte received an invitation from Washington, D.C. It wasn't from the White House. Scott Nova, executive director of an anti-sweatshop group called the Worker Rights Consortium, invited D'Alemberte to affiliate with his organization.

Like the University of Florida and the University of South Florida, Florida State University belongs to the more established Fair Labor Association. Nike Inc. pays one of its largest licensing fees to FSU — almost $3-million a year — for the privilege of outfitting the university's intercollegiate athletic teams, including the telegenic two-time national champion Seminole football squad. In turn, FSU remits 1 percent of the fees to the Fair Labor Association, which supposedly will start this summer making sure the swoosh-adorned cleats and jerseys supplied by Nike are made by overseas workers who are paid and treated decently.

But the association's endorsement will be a hollow one, according to college students lobbying D'Alemberte and 152 other university presidents whose schools are members. "We feel they should pull out of the FLA," said Eric Brakken, national organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops.

The FLA is dominated by the very apparel companies that the association is supposed to be checking up on, these critics contend. Besides sportswear leader Nike, the association gets financial support from Reebok International Ltd. and adidas-Salomon AG. Six seats on the FLA's 14-member board are reserved for apparel industry representatives.

The association formed out of a Clinton administration effort to find common ground between international labor advocates and apparel makers, after Kathie Lee Gifford's Wal-Mart clothing line was found to be produced by Chinese earning the equivalent of 3 cents an hour.

When the industry's hand became apparent, the FLA lost labor and religious groups like the AFL-CIO and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Since 1998, the association has fought an image as an industry-funded sham.

In April 2000, the student anti-sweatshop movement helped form the Worker Rights Consortium. In contrast to the FLA, the consortium aims to conduct surprise inspections of foreign plants. To date, though, the consortium has signed up only 76 schools.

The consortium has an avowed enemy in Nike CEO Philip H. Knight. When his alma mater joined last year, Knight canceled $30-million in donation pledges.

"To accept the University of Oregon's endorsement of the WRC would be to place my company, our employees, our university-related manufacturers and their employees in unknown hands under undefined monitoring that has no protocols, no credibility, no role for companies whose businesses are being monitored, and no independence," Knight said. "For me personally, there will be no further donations to the University of Oregon."

The university withdrew from the consortium, but Knight has yet to renew his pledges.

Knight critics answered with protests of Nike's initial hands-off reaction to a crackdown at a Mexican plant in January. Police and thugs beat up striking workers who wanted more than the $30 they were paid for 45 hours a week of stitching American college sweatshirts for Nike.

The consortium sent a fact-finding team to the Kukdong factory in Atlixco within days of worker firings. The team's reports persuaded Nike to intervene "constructively and effectively," Nova told D'Alemberte in his letter last month.

FSU students are waiting to see whether D'Alemberte will resist the kind of financial pressure that Knight applied at Oregon.

Tony Williams, leader of a United Students Against Sweatshops chapter in Tallahassee, said he has met with D'Alemberte about FSU joining the Worker Rights Consortium. "He seemed a bit cautious but receptive," said Williams, 19, a political science major from Tennessee.

University officials said Nova's letter was referred by D'Alemberte to an aide for review. D'Alemberte indicated he might be willing to sit down with a delegation from the consortium next month, said Williams.

The consortium takes a low-key approach, said Nova, leaving it to students to change campus attitudes. "We don't pressure schools to join," he said. "That's not something we do."

Williams and Brakken have been in contact with anti-sweatshop activists in Gainesville. So far, however, University of Florida officials are undecided about jeopardizing their nearly $2-million Nike deal to go with the consortium.

Brakken said he was unaware of anti-sweatshop activity at USF, which has far less valuable licensing arrangements with Reebok and adidas. Michael Reich, spokesman for USF President Judy Genshaft, said he needed to research the FLA-versus-WRC issue.

Contact Staff Writer Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].

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