Georgetown has been at the forefront of an historic campaign for worker justice, worker rights and the legal accountability of corporations in Latin America. One year ago, Georgetown students and Honduran workers held a press conference in Red Square to demand that the university cut its licensing contract with Russell Athletic. The next day, the university agreed to terminate its relationship with Russell.
Russell Athletic is an apparel company that shut down one of its factories – Jerzees de Honduras – after the workers at the factory organized a union. The Worker Rights Consortium – a nonpartisan monitoring body of which Georgetown is a member – determined that Russell Athletic did in fact close the factory because the workers organized a union. This was a violation of Honduran freedom of association laws, and a breach of the university’s code of conduct that the company signed when it contracted with Georgetown.
When Russell Athletic shut down the factory in Honduras, the workers were left without jobs. Rather than accepting this illegal and unjust measure, the newly unemployed workers decided to stage a campaign to demand that Russell Athletic reopen the factory and bring their jobs back to the community. Norma and Moises, leaders of the union at the factory, toured universities in the United States and the United Kingdom to encourage students to join the campaign and pressure their universities to cut contracts with Russell Athletic. Students at 96 colleges and universities – coordinated by the national student-run organization United Students Against Sweatshops – successfully persuaded their schools to cut their contracts with the company. Georgetown was among the first universities in the nation to terminate its contract, and it was the first Jesuit and Catholic university to do so.
Because of the influence of that powerful campaign, Russell Athletic realized that exploiting its workers was not a viable business strategy. The company acceded to the demands of the workers, reopened the factory, rehired the wrongfully fired workers and compensated them for lost wages. The factory’s reopening marked an unprecedented achievement for the student campaign against worker injustice. According to USAS, “This victory has also proven that together, we can successfully fight back when those in power take advantage of the economic crisis to attack working people.”
Living up to Georgetown’s Jesuit and social justice ideals can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is the right course of action. From Archbishop Oscar Romero, S to the Berrigan brothers, Jesuits have a long history of fighting for social justice. Georgetown’s role in this campaign demonstrated that the university and its students are willing to take positive steps toward fulfilling the high standards that we hold.
This campaign demonstrated that labor solidarity works. Workers and students, when they organize together, can match the international reach of corporations. By fighting side by side, we managed to reverse the race to the bottom. We supported the workers who stood up for their rights, and those workers now have their jobs back and have the protection of a union. Our community demonstrated its belief that treating workers well is morally necessary and aided in forcing Russell Athletic to recognize that treating workers well is good for business. In this campaign, we found a working model for protecting worker rights, and it is a model that will work again.
Last week, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee celebrated the one-year anniversary of a historic victory. Let us hope, not only that there are more similar victories in the future, but also that Georgetown continues to lead the way in the efforts to achieve justice for workers everywhere.
Samuel Geaney-Moore and Nathan Kuerschner are sophomores in the School of Foreign Service. Both are members of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee.