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Likins pledges 'quiet approval' of Nike's possible labor concessions

By Tate Williams
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 25, 1999
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Randy Metcalf
Arizona Daily Wildcat

Members of the University of Arizona's Students Against Sweatshops protested Nike, Inc. in front of the Administration building on March 2.

UA President Peter Likins yesterday said universities could better combat sweatshop labor by standing aside and letting Nike Inc. pressure its competitors into full factory disclosure.

Nike CEO Philip Knight sent a letter March 10 to numerous university presidents, volunteering disclosure of overseas factory addresses if the apparel manufacturer's competitors do the same.

Likins said "quiet approval" of the statement by the University of Arizona allows Nike to encourage others to follow suit. He added that pressure from universities will not help solve the problem.

"If you try to coerce people, they tend to respond with resistance," Likins said yesterday.

Nike has the power to sway other international corporations, but a university president does not, Likins said.

But members of the University of Arizona's Students Against Sweatshops chapter disagree.

SAS member Avery Kolers said he is embarrassed about the UA's inactivity, but praised Nike's reaction to consumer complaints.

"Either the university has completely sold out, or has been completely duped," he said. "We're supposed to be the smart ones - they're supposed to be the money-making ones."

Kolers said the UA adopted a corporate perspective in its dealings with international conglomerates.

SAS members, including Kolers, vehemently opposed the UA's $7 million contract with Nike, signed in August, 1998, which gave the corporation exclusive rights to provide most of the university's athletic equipment and apparel.

Kolers said the university's current labor agreements are too lenient on apparel companies.

Likins recently joined the Collegiate Licensing Company's anti-sweatshop code of conduct, despite SAS' disapproval and a 45-minute protest outside the Administration building.

The nationwide student activist group considers the code ineffective, partially because it does not demand public disclosure of factory addresses.

The CLC represents about 175 universities that have the strength needed to encourage reform if they join in a common code, said CLC Chief Executive Bill Battle.

But the corporations resisted the idea of disclosure, threatening the creation of a nationwide anti-sweatshop code, he said.

Battle said the CLC can't use Nike's challenge to alter the code, because the organization can only enforce university requests.

"We're able to leverage the clout, but they all retain individual decision-making," he said.

Battle said he hopes Nike's step forward will encourage change, "sooner than later."

Likins said the CLC lacks leadership capabilities, but the university's role is to encourage positive actions among corporations, not to pressure them.

"I believe that Phil Knight wants to get rid of sweatshops," he said. "I believe his corporation has been awakened."

Knight offered the full-disclosure challenge to encourage universities to join the newly-formed Fair Labor Association, the letter stated.

The FLA, a still-forming U.S. Department of Labor committee, consists of human rights groups, apparel companies and universities. Likins said the CLC and the FLA will encourage corporations to eliminate sweatshops.

Students Against Sweatshops officials, however, have criticized the FLA for having flaws similar to the CLC code, including the lack of a clause mandating public factory disclosure.