Georgetown students protest apparel contract

There were definite signs of unrest the morning of Dec. 8 — big signs scrawled with bold lettering: “What would Jesus do? Cut Nike!” That message appeared on one of several posters scattered about Healy Hall, Georgetown University’s main administration building. Some 50 students chanting, “When Nike workers are under attack, stand up, fight back!” had just entered the building.

Several of those students began a 34-hour sit-in protest in the offices of Georgetown President John DeGioia. It was the dramatic culmination of a yearlong campus campaign demanding that the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit-run university end its $86 million licensing agreement with Nike over serious allegations of unfair labor practices and deplorable conditions at the Hansae factory in Vietnam, which manufactures Georgetown-sponsored apparel.

A major contract

Campus activists claim the school’s contract for Air Jordan gear is the largest in the nation. Sneakers worn by members of Georgetown’s celebrated basketball team, the Hoyas, bear Nike’s famous logo. The school’s contract with Nike was set to expire Dec. 31.

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Seven students continued their occupation of the president’s office until the evening of Dec. 9, when they struck a compromise agreement with university officials.

“They’ve reached an agreement that both sides consider progress,” John Kline, a professor of international business diplomacy, told Our Sunday Visitor. Kline is a member of Georgetown’s Licensing Oversight Committee and among the faculty members supporting the students. He also served as a witness to their verbal agreement, calling for full, independent and ongoing access to the Vietnam plant by the fair labor agency, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), something Georgetown had already demanded but Nike has yet to fully embrace. Protesters, for their part, dropped their demand that the licensing contract be cut altogether.

University spokesperson Rachel Pugh said the agreement also called for ongoing meetings with faculty and student members of the Licensing Oversight Committee to discuss negotiations with Nike.

“Georgetown University is committed to protecting the rights of workers producing university-licensed apparel,” she said, and added that university officials also found the recent report on conditions at the Hansae factory “deeply troubling.” But she added, “We believe the best way to address the concerns in the reports and to improve the conditions of workers is by working together with Nike.”

Student pressure

The Georgetown protest was organized by a group called the Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC), an affiliate of the national group United Students Against Sweatshops. Organizers say they were stirred to action by the laundry list of alleged abuses at Nike’s Hansae plant in Vietnam, documented in a report issued by the Worker Rights Consortium Dec. 6. They include wage theft, verbal abuse of workers, pregnancy discrimination, forced overtime, illegal restrictions on workers’ use of toilets, denial of sick leave, family leave and bereavement leave, factory temperatures well in excess of the legal limit of 90 degrees, unsafe spraying of toxic solvents, padlocked exit doors, and a chronic problem of workers collapsing unconscious at their sewing machines due to heat and overwork.

In response to this, GSC member Vincent DeLaurentis had issued an ultimatum reading, “If the administration is unwilling to put workers’ rights ahead of its own interests, we as students will force them to.”

One Georgetown protester, while acknowledging the group’s actions were radical and theatrical, insisted they were necessary to keep the clock from running down on their long-standing demands.

“I think Nike just didn’t think we were serious,” Georgetown junior Lily Ryan, a government major from New Orleans, told Our Sunday Visitor. She is one seven students who occupied DeGioia’s offices until about 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 9, when the deal was struck. “We’ve been working on this issue for 14 months,” she said, “and Nike has not moved an inch.”

She and other protesters felt university officials, while concerned over treatment of workers, were resisting.

“It seemed to us as if Nike was just kind of stringing it out, that we would just kind of run out of time and be renewing the contract by default. We wanted to make it clear to the university that we were paying attention, that we didn’t want that to happen.”

Social activism and demonstrations are not uncommon on Jesuit campuses, including Georgetown. And more and more, students seem to be focusing their concerns on garment workers in poor countries. Kline recalled a 1999 Georgetown rally against sweatshops that also led to a sit-in protest.

“I think students are getting more and more involved in this issue,” he said. In fact, activists have declared a national campaign among Catholic colleges, saying it is vital to upholding Catholic social teaching and defend beleaguered garment workers. In a statement, they asserted that “over 35 colleges and universities across the United States are waiting to see if (DeGioia) will uphold Ignatian values in this crucial moment,” referring to Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola’s philosophy of social compassion. They also cited concerns on the part of Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, over the “globalization of indifference.”

Codes of conduct

Nike spokeswoman Sabrina Oei released a statement on the first night of the protest. She said the company has been “deeply committed to workers and improving conditions in contract factories for more than 20 years.” She said Nike is aware of concerns at the Hansae factory and has developed a remediation plan involving Hansae, Nike management and the Fair Labor Association, a labor watchdog group. “Many corrective actions have already been implemented,” she said. “Our code of conduct is the strongest in the industry.”

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But the issue of professional codes of conduct has emerged as a sore point between Nike and Georgetown. The university had already threatened to sever ties with the clothing giant if it did not force the Vietnam factory to comply with Georgetown’s own Labor Code of Conduct. But last spring it came to light that Nike, the school’s biggest contractor, was also the only contractor that had not signed off on that code, which sets strict standards for fair treatment of workers.

“It wasn’t discovered until Georgetown went to Nike and said they needed to allow access for our monitoring organization to go in the (Vietnam) factory to investigate these allegations,” Kline said.

Students who occupied the president’s office have been told by Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs, that they would hear from the Office of Student Conduct in coming weeks regarding possible disciplinary sanctions.

But Ryan believes her actions of protest are in line with her own and Georgetown’s Catholic identity. As for those Nike garment workers, she said: “Their lives matter, and the dignity of their work matters.”

Greg Wayland writes from Massachusetts.