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Anti-sweatshop success

Last week's twin announcements that Duke has renewed contracts with Mt. Olive Pickle Company and the New Era Cap Company were the latest installment in the University's ongoing struggle to improve working conditions at companies with Duke contracts. Possibly ending two protracted conflicts over workers' rights, this latest news brings a mix of victory and disappointment.

The New Era announcement was expected after workers at the company's Derby, N.Y., plant ratified a new contract in June. Nevertheless, it represents the culmination of years spent monitoring factories and fighting for improved working conditions. When the University did not renew its contract last November--citing allegations of anti-union activity and an unsafe working environment--it was the first such move since Duke began enforcing a code of conduct with its licensees in spring 2000. Continued pressure on the company, followed by a resolution that supports workers and then by a resumption of the contract is exactly the pattern the University should follow in holding corporations accountable. Intercollegiate watchdog groups like the Workers' Rights Consortium and the Fair Labor Association will still need to monitor New Era, but students and administrators should see this as a validation of their anti-sweatshop efforts.

The Mt. Olive matter is less significant in size and scope, and the University's handling of the contract is less cut and dry. On the surface, President Nan Keohane's support of the boycott, her subsequent negotiations with the company and the resulting agreement follow the model established during the apparel protests. But the vague wording of the agreement and its lack of real teeth mean that the lives of workers will not necessarily change. There are no concrete enforcement mechanisms to ensure the "Statements of Compliance" are valid. More than anything, this points to the need for greater monitoring of farms by state agencies, but it also calls into question Duke's claim that the agreement breaks new ground.

Keohane and other administrators should have contacted concerned students before reaching any agreement. One of the reasons the apparel model worked so well is that students were consulted at every level. Students have shown a strong commitment to working through the complexities of improving workers' rights, and their input likely would have resulted in a better agreement. Moreover, the administration is dampening the intellectual engagement of students by excluding them from the conversation.

That Mt. Olive has been the only recent target of groups like Students Against Sweatshops remains an uncomfortable part of this discussion. For practical reasons, the group and the University need to concentrate their efforts if they hope to make a difference, but Mt. Olive surely is not the only agricultural company facing labor concerns among suppliers. Duke has expressed a willingness to boycott other companies should sufficient evidence of worker abuse arise. As Keohane hinted at in her statement, a broader discussion of workers' conditions should replace a seemingly random targeting of Mt. Olive.

It may be too early to tell if either the Mt. Olive or New Era case will have a lasting impact for workers, but the University is headed in the right direction. Administrators just need to back up their strong words to ensure better lives for workers.


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