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Your Trusted UCI Sweatshirt: Banned

A UC Irvine sweatshirt has many functions. Besides providing warmth, coziness and a chance to display your Anteater pride, it can be a very handy solution for weeks of laundry procrastination. Moreover, your college sweatshirt is one of the key ingredients in the quadruple-decker cake that is your university experience. So what happens when that key ingredient is tainted?

As of April 29, it has been confirmed that UCI will join a growing number of schools who are boycotting the brand Russell Athletics, a company that provides many of our UCI sweatshirts and one that allegedly violated a number of fair labor laws with the closing of a recent factory.

Generally, students know about the many uses of a UCI sweatshirt. Some may even know that the sweatshirt, with its three proud letters splashed across the chest, costs anywhere from $40 to $50, depending on the style.

What they probably don’t know, and what they should know, is that many of those trusty UCI sweatshirts are made by Russell Athletics. The Atlanta-based manufacturer that has received a fairly substantial amount of attention in the last few months, and not in a good way.

Russell Athletics produces basic active wear, mostly of the cotton solids variety. The company is no couturier, but the Russell brand is sold in universities and retail stores across the nation.

But in February 2009, the company opted to close down one of its production factories in Honduras, “Jerzees de Honduras,” citing losses due to the recent financial crisis.

The closing left 1,800 workers unemployed and occurred just one month after workers in the factory allegedly sought to unionize. Investigations were quickly conducted by several organizations, including the Fair Labor Association and the Workers Rights Consortium. A 36-page document published by the Workers Rights Consortium, which monitors the rights of workers who sew or manufacture apparel for universities (including UC schools), concluded that the closing of the Honduran factory was in violation of labor laws, and that managers of the factory had regularly harassed its employees.

Due to the highly publicized findings, nearly 60 schools, including Harvard University and Cornell University, have elected to sever their ties with the Russell brand. As of this month, it is likely that UCI and the rest of the UC schools will follow suit. Based on a letter from the central administration of the UC, all 10 campuses were recommended to terminate or decline to renew their contracts with Russell Athletics. As UCI’s contract with Russell was up at the end of April, UCI Bookstore Director Michael Smith sent the company a letter explaining why UCI would not be renewing its contract.

It is unquestionably a delicate situation, and Smith laments Russell’s actions.

“We’ve had a good business relationship with Russell for 25 years. The quality of the clothing we get from them versus other brands is clearly superior,” Smith said.

Yet for Smith, the choice of how to deal with the Russell situation is no stumper.

“We have a very clear code of conduct established with the companies that we buy from. It demands that factory workers receive a living wage and fair treatment. We want to do the right thing,” Smith said.

Additionally, the situation with Russell has not passed without notice from student groups. According to KUCI’s Subversity blog, Russell’s violation of fair labor laws spurred a number of student organizations, including United Students Against Sweatshops, Radical Student Union, Worker Student Alliance and Muslim Student Union, to deliver a letter to Chancellor Drake, demanding that UCI and the UC Regents terminate the school’s agreement with Russell. Some people were even found putting flyers into Russell garments within the bookstore. They were respectfully asked to desist.

For now, the bookstore will be clearing out its Russell inventory with such events as the recent Sidewalk Sale, and restocking the apparel section with alternative brands such as Champion and Adidas.

“I would like to see Russell fix the problem,” Smith said.

He notes that Russell is currently in negotiations with the Federal Labor Association as well as the Designated Supplier Program to remedy the fair labor issues. Russell has been asked to reopen the Honduran factory as well as increase the severance package for those whose jobs were terminated, though as of now there is no definite information on whether Russell will agree to these terms.

Readers can rest assured that there will be no shortage of UCI sweatshirts, but is this the end of UCI’s relationship with the brand? That remains to be seen. Of all the functions of your UCI sweatshirt, the last thing you want it to say is that you’re supporting unfair labor practices.