Huge Breakthrough for Worker Rights

05/25/2011 02:45 pm ET
  • Scott Nova Founding Executive Director, Worker Rights Consortium

A remarkable confluence of political forces has produced a stunning breakthrough for the cause of worker rights: Fruit of the Loom, a major apparel brand that makes university t-shirts and sweatshirts under the Russell Athletic label, has agreed to respect workers' right to organize throughout its massive production hub in Honduras - thanks to inspired student activism, strong moral leadership from many of the nation's leading universities, and the company's own ability to embrace fundamental change in its approach to unions.

On November 14, the company signed a sweeping accord with a leading Honduran union federation that will correct a great injustice and open the door to genuine respect for the rights of the more than ten thousand workers. Under the agreement, the company has committed to open a unionized apparel factory to replace one it closed a year ago after workers formed a union, rehire more than 1,200 fired workers, and bargain in good faith with worker representatives. And there is something the company has committed not to do: it will not oppose unionization in any of its Honduran plants.

Fruit of the Loom is the biggest private employer in Honduras. The company's decision is an astounding advance for workers in an industry where attempts to organize unions have routinely been met with brutal repression - including mass firings, threats and intimidation, and blacklisting of unionists.

Many apparel workers view unionization as their best hope for improving the poverty wages and degrading conditions that remain commonplace in the industry. The major apparel brands in the United States claim to respect the right to organize. This right is part of the codes of conduct the brands have adopted to allay consumer disquiet over sweatshop conditions - codes the brands have pledged to uphold at their factories around the world.

But these pledges have often proven empty. Repression of unionization efforts at apparel factories is rarely challenged, either by the brands that buy from these factories or by local governments. As a result, you are more likely to find remorse in the heart of a Goldman Sachs executive than you are to find a collective bargaining agreement in an apparel factory producing for the US market.

So why is Fruit of the Loom breaking from the pack? There are two reasons. First, the company faced a major crisis. After the Worker Rights Consortium, a university-based labor rights watchdog, uncovered the anti-union motive behind the factory closure last year, United Students Against Sweatshops and a host of allies launched one of the most effective grassroots organizing campaigns in years. Universities across the country took a stand, with nearly a hundred institutions - from Duke, to Georgetown, to UCLA to the University of Montana - stripping Fruit of the Loom of the right to sell clothing with their university's name. And the workers in Honduras fought with extraordinary tenacity and courage to restore their jobs and their union.

But this historic agreement doesn't just demonstrate the power of grassroots organizing; it tells us something about the company. Fruit of the Loom had the vision to resolve its crisis not by doing the bare minimum necessary to make the problem go away, but by embracing a far-reaching, long-term accord with a strong union - something no other apparel brand operating in Central America has ever done. If Fruit of the Loom makes good on its commitments, and there is reason for optimism on this score, the company will have done more to advance workplace democracy than any other well-known brand in the industry.

So buy a Russell hoodie or Fruit of the Loom t-shirt this holiday season and support a labor accord that represents a huge step forward for workers in the global economy.