Red Nike hat

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is ending its apparel contract with Nike Inc., becoming the first school to cut ties with the world's leading supplier of athletic shoes and apparel due to alleged labor rights abuses at two factories overseas.

University officials announced their decision Friday afternoon at a meeting of the Labor Licensing Policy Committee at Bascom Hall. Nike pays UW-Madison nearly $50,000 per year for the right to use the university's name or marks -- such as Bucky Badger or the "motion W" -- on apparel it makes.

"Nike has not developed, and does not intend to develop, meaningful ways of addressing the plight of displaced workers and their families in Honduras," UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin said in a statement. "It has not presented clear long-range plans to prevent or respond to similar problems in the future. For this combination of reasons, we have decided to end our relationship for now."

The university will let its contract with Nike lapse when the current deal expires at the end of June.

"We always encourage people to do better and to remediate the situation," said Dawn Crim, a special assistant to the chancellor for community relations who closely follows sweatshop issues. "And if that's done, we'll talk with Nike again."

A Nike spokesperson was contacted for this article, but did not comment.

The Worker Rights Consortium reported in October that two factories that produce collegiate apparel for Nike in Honduras -- Vision Tex and Hugger de Honduras -- were shuttered early in 2009 without paying legally mandated severance and back pay to some 1,800 workers. The amount owed is about $2.2 million.

Considering people at those factories made roughly $40 per week, the average worker is owed about 30 weeks worth of pay.

"I would say to Nike just do it -- just pay them the $2.2 million they owe the workers," said Jane Collins, a UW-Madison professor of community and environmental sociology, and author of the 2003 book, "Threads: Gender, Labor and Power in the Global Apparel Industry." Collins also is a member of the university's Labor Licensing Policy Committee, which is an advisory group that keeps tabs on companies that produce apparel with the UW logo.

Although Nike did not own the factories that closed, as a licensee of UW-Madison apparel the company must follow a university code of conduct for producers.  That code, among other things, states companies must pay these legally mandated wages and other benefits.

The factory owners also are accused of not paying into Honduras' national health care system and keeping the deductions that were taken out of workers' checks.

The Worker Rights Consortium, which reported the Nike violations, is an organization which was started in April of 2000 by university administrators, labor rights experts and student activists to keep an eye on those who produce college-logoed apparel. The WRC -- now with more than 170 university affiliates, including UW-Madison -- is funded with membership fees from institutions.

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UW-Madison's Labor Licensing Policy Committee first voted to ask Martin to cut ties with Nike back in December. But the committee's vote was strictly advisory, and at the time Martin felt it would be wise to give the company 120 days to clear up these issues. But that deadline passed Thursday and it had become clear to university officials that Nike had no plans to remedy the situation.

Ultimately, UW-Madison leaders said they had no choice but to end the contract.

Two workers from Honduras who lost their jobs when those factories were shuttered took place in a conference call with UW-Madison's LLPC Friday and became very excited and emotional when told the university was ending its contract with Nike.

Whether or not other institutions follow UW-Madison's lead remains to be seen.

"That's why it's important that we continue to reach out to other universities," said sophomore Jonah Zinn, a member of the Student Labor Action Coalition -- which is UW-Madison's affiliate of United Students Against Sweatshops. "There are student movements going on at about 20 other universities and the goal is to pick up the momentum. But in order to get that momentum going, it's important to take that first step -- and it's a huge deal that UW-Madison was the first university to cut the contract. We won't be the last, for sure."

Previously, the university and student activists on campus played a key role in persuading Russell Athletic -- one of the nation's leading sportswear companies -- on Nov. 17 to rehire 1,200 workers in Honduras who had lost their jobs when Russell shuttered its factory shortly after workers unionized. In that instance, UW-Madison was one of nearly 100 colleges and universities which ended apparel deals with Russell -- forcing the company to change its ways if it wanted to get back into the profitable collegiate apparel-making business.

"The real difference here is that with the Russell contract, there were many, many other universities joining with us," said Collins. "And here, we are kind of out here on our own. But as you could hear, the workers were crying when they heard the news because they were so moved. So even though we are a small proportion of what Nike produces, I do think this will get Nike's attention. Even if no other schools join us, the publicity of Wisconsin doing this will matter."