Workers Struggle at a Nike Factory — Kukdong in Puebla, Mexico

by Lane Van Ham

The author of this February 3 report is part of the outreach committee of Students Against Sweatshops at the University of Arizona.

“Are you frightened yet?”

This was what the leader of a government-backed union asked workers at a factory in the state of Puebla, Mexico, last month. (This pro-company union has the peculiar acronym, deriving from its name in Spanish, FROC-CROC.)

This “union leader” wasn’t making a concerned inquiry about job security or safety regulations — he was taunting the workers as he helped coordinate a raid by state police on the building that workers had seized to protest their working conditions. The police ousted them from the building with excess violence that hospitalized a number of the workers, who are mostly women.

Maybe it’s a question we need to be asking each other: Are you frightened yet?

If you want a snapshot of globalization and “the new economy” at work, look no further than the struggle at this very factory in Atlixco in the state of Puebla, Mexico — a sweatshop owned by the Korean company Kukdong, which produces a variety of university-licensed goods for both Reebok and Nike. The workers struck on January 9, occupying the factory in response to numerous abuses and violations of Mexican labor law, and demanding the right to have their own union, not a company union. Two days later, riot police stormed the building and forced the workers out. Production resumed on January 13, but Kukdong refused to hire back about 250 workers who were recognized as participants in the strike.

The following weekend, a fact-finding mission by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) visited Atlixco and gathered information on the factory conditions. The WRC findings were issued as a report on January 24 and included the following:

The WRC report cites numerous violations of Mexican labor law, university codes of conduct, and the Nike’s own alleged code of conduct.

Nike’s response as of early February was abysmal. First they claimed that their work at Kukdong was “seasonal” and that no work for Nike was presently being done. They also claimed the fight was “not about production issues” but “a dispute over (a) catering/food contract.” Later, they suggested the conflict was attributable to a communication breakdown based on the Korean management’s inability to speak Spanish. Most recently, they have issued a letter saying the WRC report is “unsubstantiated” and suggested people visit “more objective sources”…on the Nike website!

We can make a difference here. I know, because we already have: the mere exposure of this situation marks a victory of the international anti-sweatshop movement. Just two years ago, Students Against Sweatshops chapters across the country were pushing universities to include provisions for “full disclosure” of factories in their licensee contracts. Apparel industry officials said “never” — keeping production sites secret was the industry standard and would remain that way. Today, however — and particularly where student voices have been the loudest — full disclosure is required for apparel contracts with many universities, including the University of Arizona (U of A). If we didn’t have the full disclosure requirement, we wouldn’t know the Atlixco factory made goods for U of A; if we didn’t know the Atlixco factory made goods for the U of A, the story would not be news; if the story was not news, the workers’ movement would have vanished overnight.

This campaign is on the frontlines of the fight to determine what the future of globalization will look like. If Nike lets Kukdong crush labor in Mexico, it is indeed reason to be frightened. Our efforts to prevent this, however, constitute a reason to hope. As one Kukdong worker said in a message to the international community, “Thank you for your support and for crossing race and border lines to help us. We hold you in our hearts and warmest thoughts.” Keep crossing those lines. Capital is transnational — shouldn’t labor solidarity be, too?

Because the Kukdong factory makes apparel for universities, Nike has to feel the pressure from students and administrators at the schools they do business with. Please take a few minutes to join in this international struggle to defend the fundamental rights of free association for workers. Demand:

  1. That all fired workers be rehired;
  2. That trumped-up charges against strike leaders be dropped;
  3. That Kukdong management recognize the employees’ independent union.

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