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The better angels of our nature

| Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Notre Dame is union made, and Notre Dame has labor problems. Administrators have fought campus unionization, workers have limited bargaining power and the university’s capital investments have little moral oversight. And yet, Notre Dame is union made. This contradiction is key to the proposed changes to our University’s licensing policy. We have many precedents to choose from, so let us be guided by the better angels of our nature.

There has been controversy surrounding the Campus Crossroads project, which has brought sprawling construction to our University. But for all the arguments, none have suggested that the construction would be poorly done — that the workers would be poorly trained, the bricks poorly laid and the roofs poorly raised. Union workers erect our buildings in the vast majority of cases. In a union town like South Bend, why would we trust the very body of our University to the tools of the underpaid, the overworked and the rightless?

More than any other thing, Notre Dame football carries the standard of our University in the public eye. At every home game, the nation sees roaring crowds decked in The Shirt. This symbol is union made, in a factory in the Dominican Republic where the workers have won wages three times the national average thanks to their militant labor union. We can wear it proudly.

We stand on this solid ground as we look to the China policy. At the moment, the University refuses to manufacture its licensed products in countries that refuse to allow workers the right to form independent labor unions. China is the focus of this policy, as it is a global manufacturing hub where unions exist but are not independent of the state. The office of Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves has proposed a change to this policy to instead assess manufacturers on a case-by-case basis in a pilot program. After speaking personally with Mr. Affleck-Graves, I am assured of his good will in hoping this change allows the University to engage with the Chinese government in making improvements to workers’ rights.

The China policy is certainly ineffective, however. It recognizes only state power in repressing workers’ rights. Private coercion is no less harmful in busting unions, and it happens from South Bend to Singapore. In 2013, a factory in Bangladesh collapsed — killing 1,129 workers. Technical legal rights meant little as corporate power kept workers from winning decent and safe conditions. This disaster threw the issue into stark relief, but daily struggles against abusive bosses in all corners of the world speak to the scope of this problem. More than national laws define individual manufacturers. In this light, I welcome the administration’s reassessment of its licensing policy.

However, vague “case-by-case” assessment is insufficient. Mr. Affleck-Graves assured me that there would be a set of decent standards applied to manufacturers everywhere, and this is cause for praise. But we must go further. Individual assessments without hard standards are ripe for abuse, either next year or next decade. We can never rely solely on the good will of current administrators, as others will occupy those positions someday.

We stand on solid ground — union made ground — when making these changes. On Tuesday, they make the decision. I call on all to write to the administration with this single demand: Keep Notre Dame union made. Add to the new policy that University licensing must seek out unionized factories for manufacture. If current agreements prevent this, implement it when new contract terms are up. The online “Union Made Apparel Directory” lists dozens of manufacturers in the U.S. and Canada alone. Cost is no excuse, as The Shirt is union made, cheaper than many other T-shirts in the Bookstore and still makes money for charity funds. Only if union manufacturers are exhausted should we contract with nonunion factories, and only those that pay decent wages. This may include some Chinese manufacturers.

For the enforcement of this clause, I suggest a commission headed by non-administrative faculty. Some faculties — such as those affiliated with the Higgins Labor Studies Program — are natural choices, but all have a stake in University operations. In the spirit of worker participation, the faculty should choose this commission from its own ranks. Campus workers, students, priests and local labor activists should also be incorporated into the commission, to assure maximal consideration for the rights and dignity of affected workers.

Unions bring workers more control, more safety and more dignity. They raise wages and lower abuse. Labor unions save lives. The University has understood this in the past and must expand that to all its dealings. We’re not there yet, but we’re on the right path. So with the policy change coming soon, email and call the Office of the Executive Vice President and tell the administration to follow the better angels of our nature — keep Notre Dame union made.

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