Universities cut ties with Russell

April 5, 2009

activism / business

There is an interesting article in the St. Petersburg Times that reflects the issues that Russell Athletics is having with many leading universities over the company’s possible retaliation against garment workers in Honduras. The list of universities is fascinating in its quality, including the UNC, Duke, Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, and NYU, among others.

The article itself is more concerned with Florida’s public universities, which have not cut ties with Russell, but it also sheds a great deal of light on the reports indicating the retaliation, and also on what is at risk for the company, the colleges, and the workers in the factories. Russell’s response is the typical doublespeak that is common from companies in the apparel industry, though it is even less convincing than many.

The group that is at the greatest risk, as always, is the workers in the factories. The specific one in question has already been closed and its workers retaliated against, but if Russell is impacted by further universities who cut ties with it, of course it will close additional factories and more workers will lose their jobs.

And this brings us to the all-too-common question of those who suffer from the forces of unrestrained capitalism: is it better to have an abusive, oppressive, retaliatory job in an apparel factory, cocoa farm, or other industry that is typically operated in these fashions, or is it better to try to retreat from these forces and forgo what could eventually improve the situation of the country, in the next generation or the generation after that if there is not a redefining shift in the global economy?

Clearly, I would rather workers be able to work in dignifying, fairly paid and fairly treated jobs, as I assume most people would. The problem is not with our desire for this to be the case. Fair trade is a wonderful part of what is emerging into the capitalist system.

But the problem is that for those who are in oppressive situations, capitalism has no answer. If we as consumers stop consuming the stuff they make, they may get fired or treated even more badly. If we continue consuming it, they will continue to be oppressed until it is no longer efficient for companies to oppress them. The problem with capitalism is that there really is no guarantee that this will ever occur.

And this is why many of us who are advocates for fair trade are also advocates for finding out whether we can create and live by a different system than that of unrestrained capitalism. Most of America is not willing to consider this, as it has married unrestrained capitalism to various loyalties, from politics to culture to some butchered version of religion. Another world is possible, though. It has to be.