On Jan. 9, 800 workers walked out of the factory in Mexico where they are employed. This factory, Kukdong, has a contract with Nike and makes sweatshirts for UNC, Indiana University and the universities of Michigan, Oregon and Arizona.
Their walk-out was a protest against low wages, rotten food in the cafeterias, failure to pay Christmas bonuses as mandated by Mexican law and the firing of five workers who were trying to form a union in response to these abuses.
The workers had simple demands of the Kukdong management: 1) recognize the independent union the workers were forming, 2) disregard the current management-appointed union that was not working for what's in the workers' best interests and 3) reinstate illegally fired workers.
The contract UNC formed with Nike concerning its code of conduct has clearly been violated. In a "preliminary" statement of findings, the Worker Rights Consortium, a factory watchdog of which UNC is a part, concluded that there are "strong grounds for concern that Kukdong may stand in violation of provisions of (University) codes of conduct governing child labor, physical and verbal abuse, payment of minimum or living wages, and free association."
In particular, the WRC delegation found compelling evidence, including an admission by Kukdong's general manager, that workers were hit by plant supervisors using hammers and screwdrivers, and that the factory employed workers under age 16.
Not only does Nike have a code of conduct that protects workers' from abuses like the ones that allegedly occurred at Kukdong, but UNC, though the Worker Rights Consortium, has a contract with Nike to ensure that the workers' rights are respected when Nike fails to do this.
Both pacts are being broken here. Nike has a responsibility to clean up the mess in its factory, yet is being slow to act. When this happens, UNC's leaders have a responsibility to pressure Nike. Chancellor James Moeser needs to speak out adamantly against this violation of contracts, demonstrating that our university will not allow these problems to continue in any aspect as it relates to UNC and its apparel.
I know many of you were not there on Wednesday because you don't necessarily see what the big deal is with unions anyway. Unions are simply a way for workers to band together to petition for change from their management.
But CEOs of clothing-making companies do not take them for granted. They recognize that these laws do not exist, or are not enforced in "developing" nations so they move their factories there to benefit from their lax labor codes. That way, they can cut corners to increase their profits.
Why do we have such faith in these multimillion-dollar corporations whose only goal is to make a profit? If I, a privileged, economically stable, American decided to "help out" someone who was homeless by having him or her live in a shack in my back yard and sew all my clothes for less money than he or she could feed his or her family with and made him or her work from sunup to sundown, would no one have a problem with this? Would I be widely supported for "helping" this person?
I saw a political cartoon once that described the issue well. It had a skinny person hanging onto the edge of a cliff for dear life. A fat man stood safely above in a position to help the skinny person. Was he helping? Sure. He was holding out a glimmering sword labeled "sweatshops" for the struggling person to grab onto.
Still, you might wonder, "What do the workers themselves think? If I asked them, wouldn't they say they were thankful to the Nike and other American corporations for providing jobs?"
Just because many workers might say this, it does not mean that what the corporations are doing is right.
Sure, the workers are thankful for having jobs, but this is because they have no other options. Our profit-driven corporations have set it up so that working for them is the only available choice. The workers have to take these jobs despite the terrible treatment they receive.
Even if the Mexicans simply work harder, as many suggest they need to do, they will never be able to have the standard of living we have here in the United States. The United States is 5 percent of the world's population and consumes 40 percent of the world's resources. So, unless we are willing to make some sacrifices, the Third World will never catch up.
It's time we stop blaming the victims and start focusing on the real criminal: unregulated corporate America.
Nike, take some responsibility for your workers and meet their demands. Of course, many of us would rather you moved your factories back to the United States. But start with cleaning up the situation in Kukdong.
To Moeser and the Labor Task Force: Increase the pressure on Nike. And to the students: We need your help in sending a message. Make sure you show up next time. You cannot deny that you are affected by a situation simply by ignoring it. Take responsibility for your part.
Linda Chupkowski is a believer in human rights for all. E-mail her for more information about labor struggle at UNC at
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