Just Don’t: No more Nike merchandise at Cornell, says Big Red

Cornell University is severing ties with apparel brand Nike after the company and its licensing arm refused to sign a contract ensuring worker rights, says the school.

Martha E. Pollack, Cornell’s new president, sent a letter on July 7 to tell Nike and Branded Custom Sportswear, Nike’s exclusive licensee for collegiate branded products, that “Cornell is ending its licensing relationship with them,” according to a release.

Cornell students and supporters protest Nike merchandise outside the Cornell Store. Photo provided by COLA.

The Cornell Organization for Labor Action cheered the announcement, which COLA says came after a nearly two-year campaign to pressure the university. “Students organized actions including teach-ins, photo campaigns, call-ins, store actions, rallies, worker speak-outs, and engaged with union leaders from around the world,” the group said in a statement.

That campaign at Cornell and other major colleges followed “a strike over egregious labor abuses that broke out in October 2015 in a Nike factory in Hansae, Vietnam,” according to COLA. Students were supporting workers who were organizing in Vietnam, Cambodia, Honduras, and Mexico to demand access to the Worker Rights Consortium, “an independent labor monitoring system that inspects factories” on behalf of universities and other merchandising customers.

According to a statement from Cornell, “both companies are unwilling to sign a standard contract through IMG Collegiate Licensing, Cornell’s licensing agent, attesting that they will follow a labor code of conduct vetted by Cornell and peer institutions. Instead, the companies plan to follow their own code of conduct regarding labor practices.”

That code of conduct falls short, COLA tells us. “In December 2016, the Worker Rights Consortium released a report outlining Nike’s numerous violations in the Hansae factory in Vietnam, a manufacturing facility that produces university licensed goods for Nike and employs nearly 8,500 workers. These violations included extensive wage theft, above 90 degree conditions within the factory, spraying of toxic solvents, mass firings of pregnant women, and physical and verbal abuse of workers.”

An updated report this April says the factory “has enacted remedial measures to improve working conditions, but that the ‘overall progress has fallen short’ of what the Worker Rights Consortium and universities require. Nike has still failed to provide plans for back paying workers for off the clock work, installing cooling systems to bring the temperature in the factory building down to the legal maximum, and the purchase of proper seating for thousands of sewing operators.”

Cornell senior Christopher Hanna says the action to end the licensing relationship makes the university “the fifth research university to cut ties with the Nike brand.” Cornell is joining Rutgers, Georgetown, UC Santa Barbara, and Northeastern in dropping the brand.

This won’t affect Cornell Big Red teams, though, since Cornell Athletics has a separate deal with Nike. “Our contract with Nike runs through 2020 and the existing partnership has been a positive one for our programs and athletes,” Cornell Athletic Director Andy Noel tells us. “Cornell athletes will continue to wear Nike uniforms,” he says. “Our relationship with Nike is separate from the University’s apparel licensing agreement.”

Cornell University says the Cornell Store will sell its remaining inventory of Nike merchandise, but won’t order more. President Pollack’s letter says, “To the extent that Nike and/or BCS decide in the future to embrace the IMG standard contract language, Cornell University will be happy to re-engage with you as licensing partners.”

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