From Seattle to Managua: Victory at the University of Washington and Flying Needle!

By Rachel Shevrin and Morgan Currier, USAS organizers at the University of Washington

Beginning in March 2012, members of University of Washington USAS started a campaign against Adidas over the brand’s refusal to pay Indonesian garment workers at the PT Kizone factory $1.8 million in legally owed severance. Our demand was that the UW sever ties with the brand unless they agreed to remediate their labor violations.

We started our campaign by educating the campus about Adidas through holding a teach-in, followed up by the delivery of a giant check to the President of the University. The check was for $1.8 million dollars and made out to Adidas. We delivered this check to President Michael Young with the hope that he would take action to ensure Adidas paid this money owed to their workers.

After we continued to hold similar actions on campus to put pressure on President Young to cut our contract with Adidas, members of UW USAS put Gregg Nebel, Adidas’ Director of Social and Environmental Affairs, in the hot seat, demanding that he leave a licensing committee meeting a bit earlier than he intended.

After hearing straight from the brand that they had no intention to pay severance to the PT Kizone workers, UW students continued campaigning full force, urging President Young to cut the contract. After more actions took place, including ones where we dressed up like zombies and threw on our PJs in the middle of the afternoon, we had another chance to speak to Mr. Nebel at the annual meeting of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which took place on our campus. Again, in front of his fellow board members, students confronted Nebel directly about Adidas’ refusal to take any responsibility for paying the workers at PT Kizone.

Last week, we received word from President Young that he would be ending our business relationship with Adidas, effective immediately. What is especially significant about this action is that President Young did not include a remediation period that is customary of contract cuts. Because of our strong campaign and Adidas’ blatant refusal to be held accountable, President Young decided to take a harder stance and sever ties immediately with Adidas midway through the contract.

This victory also coincided with another victory for Adidas workers this week. In May 2012, workers at Flying Needle, a Adidas supplier factory in Nicaragua, formed a union to exercise their legal right to bargain for an end to sweatshop conditions in their factory. After the formation of the union, Flying Needle management initiated an aggressive anti-union campaign, which included the illegal firing of 17 union leaders.

After management’s initial wave of 12 anti-union dismissals in May and early June, the union filed a complaint with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Labor. After conducting an investigation, the Ministry of Labor declared these firings illegal under Nicaraguan law on June 8th, stating that “the workers must be reinstated.”

In response to militant worker action and pressure from students, this week Flying Needle agreed to reinstate all the elected union leaders with full back pay! The victory at the UW, as well as other USAS campaigns across the country, offered the support these brave workers needed in order to fight and win against this Adidas supplier.

Still, the events at Flying Needle illustrate fundamental flaws in Adidas’ treatment of workers in its supply chain. Adidas claims to consistently monitor its factories to ensure compliance with local labor law, Flying Needle demonstrates that the opposite is true. For five months, Adidas did nothing to secure the reinstatement of the unjustly fired workers, even after the Ministry of Labor had directed local management to do so. It was only when workers reached out directly to international labor rights organizations and buyers that Adidas acted to encourage their supplier to remediate the violations.

Moreover, Flying Needle is far from an isolated case for Adidas. Union leaders were also illegally fired when they formed unions at Adidas suppliers Augusta Manufacturing (Nicaragua) in March 2012 and Pinehurst Manufacturing (Honduras) in August 2010. Adidas has failed to implement any comprehensive solutions to stem this pattern of anti-union behavior.

Nevertheless, the victories at Flying Needle and the University of Washington are a true testament to the power of student-worker solidarity. From everyone in UW USAS, we look forward to standing in solidarity with other campuses taking action against Adidas because we know WHEN WE FIGHT, WE WIN!