April 28 is International Workers’ Memorial Day, a day to remember and mourn workers killed, injured, and made ill by their work. The University of Wisconsin-Madison should take action on this Workers' Memorial day to cut its contract with JanSport in order to hold VF Corp., JanSport’s parent company, accountable. VF Corp. refuses to ensure basic building and fire safety for workers at factories it contracts with in Bangladesh, contributing to the thousands of workers’ deaths from building collapses and lack of fire exits (including 29 workers killed in 2010 when the factory producing That's It Sportwear burned down). Companies like adidas Group, H&M, and Abercrombie and Fitch have already agreed to this very basic commitment to basic human decency, but VF Corp. would rather focus on maximizing profit margins.
Holding companies accountable by cutting their contracts is nothing new to us in county government. When Superior Health Linens failed to live up to our requirement of paying their workers a living wage, we swiftly cut our contract with them to demonstrate our commitment to basic ethics. Chancellor Rebecca Blank claims that because JanSport does not itself produce in Bangladesh, the university should not cut the contract. This is willful blindness. JanSport’s profits go to VF Corp. executives. This is about holding a corporation accountable by the only means possible — going after their profits. Cutting JanSport’s contract does just that. Besides, if VF Corp. and JanSport are so separate, why is a North Carolina VF Corp. executive directly defending the JanSport contract in The Capital Times opinion section? It’s as absurd as the idea that we shouldn’t cut Sprite if Coca-Cola was contracting with a plant that let its workers burn to death.
The university committee to advise the chancellor on labor licensing decisions unanimously recommended cutting JanSport’s contract. Rather than engaging with the committee and concerned university stakeholders, the chancellor has sent UW administrators to North Carolina to meet with VF executives, while stripping powers from the students, faculty and staff on the labor licensing committee. State statute Chapter 36.09(5) provides that students have the right to partake in the governance of this university. This is not a quaint Midwest tradition or a cultural trend — this is the law.
Additionally, Blank should realize how destructive siding with corporate interests is for her university if she intends to keep running a public institution. It is corporate interests and corporate politicians advocating for a $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System. It’s corporate interests privatizing public institutions and expanding for-profit colleges. These are the same people who want to see UW-Madison become a fully private, completely-funded-by-tuition school for only the rich. If Blank can’t even hold VF Corp. accountable in a licensing contract, how can she ever keep this university a public institution for all?
Leland Pan and Heidi Wegleitner are both Madison residents and member of the Dane County Board.
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