Back in the 1990s, the BJ&B hat factory, in the Dominican Republic, represented one of campus anti-sweatshop activism’s biggest triumphs. (Back in the day, I did a lot of reporting on this student movement for The Nation, and co-authored a book on the subject.)
Workers at BJ&B, which contracted with Nike to make baseball caps for the collegiate market, labored under terrible conditions, and were usually fired when they spoke out in protest. When students and workers pressured Nike to intervene, the company agreed–and life at BJ&B improved greatly: workers were even able to form a union–one of only a handful for Nike employees anywhere–and negotiate a wage increase. Nike, always looking for a way to spin itself as a responsible company, and facing a deteriorating global reputation as a sweatshop employer, was happy to take credit for the improvements at BJ&B.
The BJ&B story showed that international organizing and solidarity–among students, workers, consumers and other activists–could force a company like Nike to take action. It showed that with enough political pressure from the outside, companies could force suppliers to treat workers better.
Now, unfortunately, anti-sweatshop activism doesn’t get much attention, and the spirit of anti-corporate activism made famous by the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle has been in retreat for a number of years. BJ&B has suddenly become a study in what happens when companies think that no one cares anymore. Nike has announced plans to close the factory on May 22, moving cap production to Bangladesh and Vietnam, where they can be made for just a few cents less.
United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) is pressuring universities, hoping they will threaten to cut off business with Nike unless the company keeps BJ&B open. USAS is also pressuring Nike, holding protests at Niketowns across the country over the next few weeks. At the end of this month, workers from BJ&B will be traveling to the United States, speaking out about their situation on campuses and at Niketown protests. “The campaign’s really heating up now,” says USAS organizer Zack Knorr.
If you want to help save BJ&B–by organizing on your campus, writing to Nike or attending a Niketown rally near you–email firstname.lastname@example.org. I warned Zack that he might be overwhelmed by emails from Notion readers if we printed his email address. Bring em on, he says: “That’s a problem I’d love to have.”