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The Daily Tar Heel

Props to Meese For Protecting Workers, Code

Our beloved chancellor wasted no time dashing off a letter to Nike head honchos after learning about an 800-employee worker's strike at a Mexican UNC-contracted Nike plant that manufactures UNC sweatshirts. It all went down after 20 workers allegedly were fired for complaining about bad food, bad wages and no Christmas bonus.

Such complaints and the ensuing strike are not heinous crimes. Now, if these workers had been, say, referring to themselves in the third person or answering the telephone with the greeting "Yel-lo?" I would say bring on the pink slips. Such actions are almost justifiable grounds for homicide.

The chancellor, faculty and students have jumped into the mix because UNC's labor code calls for the workers' right to assemble. Interim Chancellor Bill McCoy signed a new and improved version of the labor code last spring after students pressed for one that would ensure fair treatment for factory workers as well as require factories to disclose their locations.

The full disclosure stipulation allows labor junkies to keep tabs on possible nonsense, even in countries far, far away.

Enter code violations at the factory in Mexico.

The Big Meese was quick to point out that Nike was not the bad guy in this ordeal. He said he was pleased with the company's attitude and felt that recent statements they had issued show they are concerned.

Moeser's letter stated that "... we reaffirm to Nike this University's commitment to freedom of association as one of the basic labor standards we have required our licensees to adopt; and that you encourage them to do everything in their power to ensure that principle is carried out."

I asked Meese why students and the University as a whole should give a damn. We have exams, infections, landlords, pesky roommates and neighbors whose devotion to Christian pop-rocker Amy Grant is pledged via vibrating walls.

He answered with only two words -- "social justice." It's one of those noble phrases you hear tossed around this campus frequently.

But this time it's different. This time we're sticking to our sweatshirts.

I talked to Kaped Krusader Todd Pugatch, a member of the Licensing Labor Code Advisory Committee. I wondered if this was just a smart way for UNC to cover its ass in the name of justice. "There's certainly a self-interested motivation, but it's really about the University being a responsible global citizen whose influence is not limited to Chapel Hill," Pugatch said. "Those workers are about the same age as us, and they are leading very different lives."

The action taken by Meese only proves that he recognizes UNC's responsibility and influence. People take notice when a large University with mammoth ties to the apparel industry signs a tough labor code, and they are noticing now while Meese lets people know that such nonsense won't stand.

Because we have standards, and we're keeping it real.

Pugatch said plans started Jan. 20 for characters from the Worker Rights Consortium to head south and check out the conditions of this factory a la "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" What they find will determine UNC's next move.

Meese said he was wary of any kind of "knee-jerk response," depending on what information is brought back. Pugatch also said that it would be unlikely that UNC would cut off business with a licensee because of one violation. Right now, Pugatch said he was just hoping things would improve.

Students at this University fought hard for this labor code. There were sit-ins, a stank-ass South Building lobby because of said sit-in and lots of wrangling with the bigwigs.

Pugatch and Meese told me why I should give a damn. I just told you.

So let's keep our thumb on this one, gang.

Columnist Ashley Stephenson can be reached at

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