Boycott by Cornell and other schools forces clothing manufacturer to change anti-labor policies

Thanks in large part to the work of the student groups Cornell Students Against Sweatshops and the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, Cornell became one of almost 100 schools to sever ties with sports apparel manufacturer Russell Athletic in late 2008 and early 2009, costing the company an estimated $50 million in annual sales. The Cornell Store alone sold about $500,000 worth of Russell merchandise.

The two student groups met with Cornell administrators, handed out leaflets on Ho Plaza, staged "drop-ins" to alert Cornell Store customers of the company's anti-labor actions and demonstrated outside an Ithaca store that sells Russell products.

"We did not renew Russell's license when it expired in March due to code of conduct violations," said Mike Powers, director of operations for university communications. "Specifically, they had closed a plant in Honduras the previous fall after the workers in the plant attempted to unionize. Then they refused to pay the workers severance. There were also allegations of death threats and other intimidations."

In November Russell announced it had entered into an agreement with the union representing former workers in its plant in Honduras that will bring the company into compliance with university labor standards and that would rehire 1,200 fired workers and recognize their union.

"Russell's decision is a major event in the history of worker rights in Central America," Powers said. "We hope it will serve as an example to other companies that do business in the region, including Nike, which is in the midst of a similar controversial situation. We will monitor developments and would certainly reconsider our licensing relationship with Russell if they fulfill the promises they have made."

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Joe Schwartz