On July 29, despite a rainy Saturday, dozens of students from across the District of Columbia gathered for what would become the apex of our nearly two-year campaign: a picket line outside Nike’s flagship store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC.
M Street echoed with chants of “What’s disgusting? Union busting! What’s outrageous? Nike wages!” Signs of scissors cutting the Nike logo bobbed alongside signs reading “F**k Nike” and “Nike Lies” in the familiar midsummer drizzle. Business for the day plummeted, as it did in the 25 cities across the world we joined in a Global Day of Action. In DC, the Nike store manager watched as the protesters blocked the sidewalk for hours, in his hand a letter that made our message clear: We demanded justice.
That was eight weeks ago. On August 30, as the iconic Healy Hall clock tower chimed at 4:30 pm on the first day of classes, Georgetown finally announced its new licensing contract with Nike. After two years of meetings with administrators, protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations, for the first time ever, Nike signed a contract that ensures full, independent access for the Worker Rights Consortium, the world’s only independent monitoring agency for factories.
The victory didn’t come without a struggle. Since 2015, we, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee and the United Students Against Sweatshops, have led a campaign against Nike, singling out the company as a bad actor in an apparel industry otherwise marked by steady improvements in conditions. By invoking the Jesuit tenet of “men and women for others” that the Georgetown administration constantly touts, we demanded the university support its high-minded rhetoric with genuine policy. Georgetown was one of several universities to spearhead the anti-sweatshop movement in the 1990s, a campaign that culminated in the founding of the Worker Rights Consortium in 2000, and we demanded that it again act as a moral bellwether for other universities as it had in the past.
Nike has benefited from unique arrangements with Georgetown since the school’s rise to basketball prominence in the early 1980s, when the corporation signed its first of many multimillion-dollar licensing and athletic contracts with the university. Today, the relationship has only strengthened. Georgetown currently holds the largest Air Jordan contract in the country; the university’s former basketball coach John R. Thompson Jr. even serves on Nike’s Board of Directors. These close ties to Georgetown have afforded the company more leeway than other licensees, such as Adidas and Under Armour: Nike, for example, is the sole brand not required to sign the university’s code of conduct, which gives Georgetown the authority to select an independent monitor to investigate labor abuses.
In October 2015, Nike took advantage of its exemption and refused to facilitate access to the Worker Rights Consortium in the Hansae Factory complex in Vietnam, following alarming reports of a worker strike—in a country where labor organizing is illegal. By barring third-party monitors from investigating working conditions, Nike upended decades of progress in labor conditions in its supply chain. It was only after pressure from university administrations around the country, including Georgetown’s, that the WRC was granted limited access to investigate the Hansae factory.
Then, more than a year after the initial Hansae strike and the university pressure that it prompted, WRC released its report, which detailed everything we had feared. Investigators described such labor abuses as wage theft, forced overtime, exposure to unsafe chemicals, padlocked exit doors, and dangerously high temperatures that caused numerous workers to collapse unconscious. Managers regularly dismissed women who became pregnant, denied them light duty, and in some cases compelled them to work beyond the legal limit. As many had feared, Georgetown Hoya apparel, from team uniforms to gift-shop T-shirts, was being sewn in factories that perpetrated some of the worst abuses characteristic of sweatshops. The report prompted GSC to launch a final action, in hopes of pressuring the Georgetown administration to take stronger action against Nike—in order to be effective, our actions had to hurt the corporation’s bottom line.
On campus, we met with university administrators through the Licensing Oversight Committee; presented Georgetown’s Chief of Staff with a letter; expanded our student coalition through personal outreach; and, after months of dead-end meetings with administrators, escalated our protests: first a three-day barefoot protest, then a full day of jamming the phone lines of the president’s office, then holding a party in president DeGioia’s office to congratulate him on his lukewarm commitment to workers’ rights, complete with a cake. Still, as the December 31 expiration of Georgetown’s licensing deal with Nike neared, the corporation gave no indication it would sign on to the university’s code of conduct. If it chose not to, Georgetown would have to decide between upholding the rights of workers or maintaining a lucrative business deal with the world’s largest sports brand.
During the final weeks of a charged semester in December 2016, we culminated our efforts in a sit-in at the university president’s office to stand for workers’ rights. Animated by loud chants, colorful banners, and a stream of 50 student supporters stationed outside, we occupied the president’s office for 35 hours, an action that eventually led to sanctions against our club that forced us to relinquish control of our budget and placed students on disciplinary probation. Despite the consequences, the sit-in led to the university administration’s meeting with us. After several discussions mediated by sympathetic professors, the administration eventually agreed not to renew the university’s licensing contract unless Nike guaranteed the WRC independent access to its factories and aligned its activities with Georgetown’s Code of Conduct, a document instituted in 1998 following an 85-hour sit-in led by members of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee—the same organization and USAS affiliate that organized the Washington, DC, leg of the Global Day of Action—that ensures all licensees uphold fair labor practices like retribution processes for workers.
Nike made no such guarantee, and on December 31, Georgetown upheld its agreement and did not renew its licensing contract; for the following eight months, Georgetown hired a mediator to hammer out a deal with Nike. Our job was to make sure Nike agreed to our—and now Georgetown’s—stipulations.
That brings us to our rainy-day picket line in July, staged as a part of a Global Day of Action Against Nike. More than just a leg of our campus-based fight for better working conditions, the day of action marked a major escalation in a larger campaign waged by USAS to expose Nike’s anti-union practices. Initially organized by more than 10 garment-worker unions in Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, El Salvador, and Honduras, the Global Day of Action upheld a core tenet of collective liberation—the simple idea that freedom must be won by all in order to be truly free. As students took the streets that Saturday, we joined garment workers in DC and across the country who were jeopardizing their livelihood to demand Nike uphold labor rights. “Participating in the Global Day of Action Against Nike has deepened my understanding of intersectionality, making me look outward in social-justice work and solidarity with those my identities may not intersect with,” said Georgetown sophomore Taylor Davis, one of the central organizers of the DC leg of the Global Day of Action.
Universities hold tremendous leverage over the garment industry through massive sponsorship and licensing deals with major sports brands. Because of this, college students are uniquely positioned to stand up for the rights of apparel workers in the global supply chain. In August 2016, Rutgers became the first university to sever ties with Nike over its labor practices, following student pressure. In the last year, the University of Washington–Seattle, Cornell University, Northeastern University, Boston University, and the entire University of California system agreed to drop their licenses with Nike in light of its restrictions on the WRC.
Two decades after the initial anti-sweatshop movement broke out on Georgetown’s campus, Georgetown students are continuing the battle against labor violations. And just two weeks after students concluded their disciplinary probations for the December sit-in, Nike signed a contract with Georgetown that included the provisions we demanded eight months ago: accordance with IMG College Licensing’s Labor Code Standards and WRC’s full, independent access to Nike factories. With this victory, GSC concludes this incarnation of our fight against Nike, but we know there will be more in the future. “I do this work because I know my liberation is inherently tied to those sewing my apparel,” sophomore Taylor Davis said. “I will not be free until we are all free.”