GW suspended its contract with popular sportswear company New Era Monday after students brought to light accusations of unfair labor practices.
The Progressive Student Union led a protest Monday against New Era Cap Co., which carried the GW logo on caps in the GW Bookstore. In addition to its ties the University, New Era is the largest Major League baseball hat manufacturer in the country.
The Worker’s Rights Consortium, a watchdog group that represents workers, released a report last summer alleging unfair labor practices. It states that New Era has violated several health and safety codes and accuses the company of disability and age discrimination.
The WRC also claims New Era limits employee freedom of association.
But New Era officials say that the WRC report, which claims New Era lacks care for workers and references sources such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and “in-depth” interviews of workers, may be biased.
“The WRC never set foot in our factories. They only talked to employees who were on strike and walked with them in the picket line,” said Tim Freer, director of human resources for New Era.
Although New Era did not allow the WRC to inspect its facilities, Freer said the group will allow the Fair Labor Association, an independent firm, to inspect the facilities.
“We are in application within the Fair Labor Association and have volunteered for a full audit,” Freer said.
The 30-page WRC report mentions puncture wounds from sewing needles and the transferring of operations to a non-union factory in Alabama to avoid collective bargaining among other health and union-busting violations.
The document also cites about 20 sources and compiles statistics from injury reports and surveys of factory workers.
As of Tuesday, Freer said GW had not notified him of the suspension, but he did confirm that “one or two” other universities have postponed their contract renewals. According to the PSU, five other schools, including Georgetown and Duke universities, suspended New Era contracts.
Freer said the FLA is preparing a report for New Era. He said FLA representatives began inspecting factories in New York and Alabama in December.
University officials said they suspended the contract pending the release of the report.
“We are basically saying that until this report is finished the University will refrain from doing business with them,” said Helen Cannaday, special assistant to the vice president of Student and Academic Support Services who is in charge of licensing the University’s name to companies like New Era.
Cannaday said GW only did about $3,000 worth of business with New Era in the last year.
The about 190 companies that make GW apparel apply through the Collegiate Licensing Company or Follet – the company that runs the GW Bookstore -to use GW’s name.
Follet and the CLC have codes of conduct that align themselves with GW’s own code of conduct, which denounces sweatshop activity and mistreatment of workers.
“We are anti-sweatshop and strongly support fair working conditions,” said Gretchen King, director of University Relations.
King said the PSU originally brought the report from the WRC to the University in August and at that time the University offered to temporarily
sever the contract until the company responded to the allegations.
PSU members rejected the offer, saying they wanted the workers to remain employed rather than fired because of universities like GW ceasing to do business with New Era.
Cannaday said she expects to see the FLA report in mid-April.
FLA University Liason Maureen Murtha said her organization hired a “well-respected” third-party monitoring company to audit the factories.
Murtha said when New Era submitted an application for FLA accreditation, the board of directors pushed to probe the company after hearing “swelling” allegations.
GW is not currently a member of the FLA or WRC.
Murtha said some universities do not join the group because they have their own codes of conduct.
Cannaday said GW has not joined one of the fair labor organizations because it is “all or none.”
“There are several of these watch-dog groups, and we can’t join every one of them,” Cannaday said. “We may end up joining both (the WRC and FLA) – all or none.”
Cannaday said the University will leave the investigation to the FLA.
“We feel that we should really see what the investigation unfolds and give everyone an opportunity to share their opinions, look at both sides of the issue and then make the decision,” she said.
Murtha said the FLA has received “quite a few calls” from universities about the New Era situation.
“I have talked to a number of schools in the past few days and encouraged them not to cancel their contracts,” Murtha said. “If a school is basing (contract changes) on allegations, it is dangerous.”
The PSU takes credit for pressuring GW into suspending the contract.
“I think it was 100 percent student pressure. GW knows the PSU can successfully mobilize students for causes,” PSU member Tanya Margolin said. Only a handful students sat in Kogan Plaza and used a bullhorn to address the situation in New Era’s factories on Monday.
The protest was one of 30 happening on college campuses around the
nation organized by United Students Against Sweatshops.
Margolin said GW is “setting a precedent” by being one of the first five schools to suspend their New Era contract.
“This is a perfect moment for GW to join the Worker’s Rights Consortium,” she said.
-Yasmin Hamidi contributed to this report.