Russell’s Letter Dated May 1


Dear Colleagues, 

On May 1, Russell Athletic sent a letter to universities which, like earlier Russell communications, consists of a long series of false and misleading statements. Most of these have been addressed and exposed multiple times in the past. However, a number of our affiliate universities have asked us to address the company’s misrepresentations. We do so herein.

1) Russell’s attack on the universities that have ended their licensing relationships with the company.

The most unfortunate aspect of the letter is Russell’s decision to lash out at the universities and colleges that have chosen to take away the company’s license. Russell accuses these universities of failing to make “principled decisions” and not providing the company “the courtesy of an opportunity to present its side of the story.” Russell says these schools did not weigh the issues carefully, but were “easily swayed” by “propaganda.” According to Russell, only if a university concluded that there was no basis for any action against the company was that institution’s decision “principled” – universities that did not reach that conclusion “succumbed to political pressures” and failed to “do the right thing.” 

As all observers of this case are well aware, Russell’s accusations are utter nonsense. Based on the numerous requests for information and analysis on this case that the WRC has received from universities and colleges across the country, it is clear that administrators – regardless of how they have ultimately decided to address Russell’s code violations – have considered this issue with care and deliberation. We have been informed by many administrators that they have communicated repeatedly with Russell representatives and have provided them with ample opportunity to justify the company’s actions. The lack of principle that Russell says universities have exhibited is nowhere in evidence.

Unfortunately, what these accusations reflect is Russell’s continued insistence that all of its problems are someone else’s fault. According to the company, it is not Russell that has failed the university community by violating university labor standards – it is the universities that have failed Russell, through their “unprincipled” decisions and their “discourtesy.” It is not Russell that failed its employees at Jerzees de Honduras by repeatedly violating their rights – it is these employees who have failed Russell, by their unwillingness to recognize the company’s benevolence as an employer. Needless to say, a change in this attitude is essential if there is going to be hope for meaningful improvements in the company’s labor practices.

2) Russell’s attempt to deny its record of wrongdoing at Jerzees de Honduras.

Russell, whose posture seems to oscillate daily between ingratiating contrition and indignant denial, is now claiming that it did not commit any violations of workers’ rights at Jerzees de Honduras after 2007. Save for “some problems” occurring that year, says Russell, it has done nothing wrong and is being unfairly criticized.

In fact, both the WRC and the FLA found, unequivocally, that Russell engaged in repeated and severe violations of workers’ rights at Jerzees de Honduras (JDH) in 2008. In their February 2, 2009 report on the case, for example, the FLA staff states that “unacceptable actions were taken that raise serious questions about Russell Corporation’s adherence to freedom of association and the protection of workers’ rights.”

To review: in addition to the closure of the factory, the following violations of associational rights were committed by Russell at JDH in 2008:

· More than 100 documented cases where Russell managers, at every level of the company hierarchy, made threats, predictions, and other statements that the factory would close because of the workers’ exercise of freedom of association;

· Russell managers’ circulation of an anti-union petition, in clear violation of Honduran law;

· Russell’s refusal to allow official government labor inspectors into the factory when they tried to investigate worker complaints;

· Russell’s refusal to allow union representatives into the factory to represent employees (a policy that explicitly denied a fundamental element of workers’ associational rights and that was embraced, in writing, by Russell’s General Counsel);

· Numerous other incidents of Russell managers’ harassment and intimidation of workers.

It should also be noted that Russell’s insistence that it did nothing wrong at JDH in 2008 directly violates the FLA’s recommendation that Russell publicly acknowledge its failure to respect associational rights at the factory during this period. It also begs the question why Russell continues to tout its “remediation plan” for JDH. If Russell didn’t commit any violations at the factory, then what exactly is the company “remediating”?

3) Russell’s claim that no concerns were raised about violations at Jerzees de Honduras until it announced the closure of the plant in October.

This claim is also demonstrably false. The WRC reported these violations to Russell executives by email and phone on numerous occasions, throughout the summer and fall of 2008, and asked Russell to put a stop to this behavior. As we have reported, the behavior did not stop – it escalated. 

4) Russell’s insinuation that the WRC only cares about the wrongly terminated workers at Jerzees de Honduras and not about other workers in its supply chain who have lost their jobs.

Aside from the absurdity of Russell attacking a labor rights monitoring organization for focusing its concerns on workers whose rights have been violated, the statement is false, as Russell well knows. Russell is acutely aware of the WRC’s concern for other workers who have lost their jobs in Russell’s supply chain – because the WRC contacted Russell months ago to ask the company to address the failure of two of its contract suppliers to pay legally mandated severance to laid-off workers. Russell never responded and we have no indication that the company has taken any meaningful action in these cases.

As a result, in part, of Russell’s inaction, nearly two thousand workers at these facilities have been deprived, for more than six months, of severance and other compensation owed to them by law. I have attached our detailed memo to Russell concerning these violations, which was sent in November. We have recently received an indication that a liquidation process may yield substantial funds for one of these groups of workers – thanks to efforts by the workers themselves, not Russell. At the other factory, there has been no progress.

5) Russell’s failure to disclose relevant facts about the plant closure.

Russell claims, as it has many times in the past, that it was justified in closing JDH because at one of its other factories, Tela, the company had a five-year lease on the factory building, whereas the lease on the building at JDH was month-to-month, making closure less costly.

Russell has again neglected to mention that the five-year lease at Tela was not signed until March of 2008 – five months after Russell had been forced by university pressure to recognize the union at JDH. Russell chose to sign this five-year lease at the non-union Tela facility, while at the same time the company insisted on maintaining a month-to-month arrangement at JDH. Russell then used the five-year lease it signed at Tela to try to justify the closure of JDH.

The university community is left to wonder why Russell, in March of 2008, chose to make a long-term commitment to keeping Tela in operation, but avoided making any such commitment to JDH. Moreover, as both the WRC and FLA investigator Adrian Goldín concluded, there is overwhelming factual evidence that retaliation against workers’ exercise of freedom of association was a significant factor in Russell’s decision to close JDH – this makes the closure a violation of freedom of association regardless of whether there was also an accompanying economic rationale for it.

6) Russell’s continued reliance on a discredited monitoring report whose grave methodological flaws were exposed by an FLA investigation.

Russell repeatedly cites an audit report by the firm ALGI in support of its claims that it did not commit serious violations of worker rights in connection with the closure of Jerzees de Honduras.

As is by now well-known, the FLA – in response to concerns expressed by numerous non-governmental organizations – commissioned an inquiry into the ALGI audit. That FLA inquiry found that ALGI’s methods were so gravely flawed and biased in favor of Russell that the conclusions of its audit were unconvincing and unreliable.

It says a good deal about the weakness of Russell’s case that it feels compelled to rely on this publicly discredited audit to defend itself. Among other claims that Russell makes, citing ALGI, is that factory management had a “cooperative rapport” with the union. This supposed “cooperative rapport” included management’s refusal to even let union representatives into the factory on union business; its open mocking of the union’s contract proposals; and, when union leaders who had been subjected to death threats at the factory pleaded for help, its refusal to provide any assistance save telling these workers that if they didn’t want to be at the factory, they could take their severance and leave.

7) Russell’s recitation of its disproven claim that it offered paid leave to the JDH workforce in order to assist workers in their search for employment.

An assessment of the factual evidence gathered by both the FLA and the WRC shows that Russell’s claim is patently false – less than 2% of the JDH workforce received this benefit.

Russell stated repeatedly in communications to universities in February, March and April, and repeats here, that it provided JDH workers with offers of paid time off to search for work prior to the closure of the factory. The company did not say that this leave had been offered to some select group of workers – but to the workforce in general. Russell cited this as an example of its remediation efforts and the benefits it was ostensibly providing to the workforce.

In April, the WRC conducted a survey, in conjunction with the EMIH, an independent monitoring organization in Honduras, of 141 former workers and union members. Every single one of these workers reported that they never received any such offer of paid leave from the factory. This evidence is clear proof that Russell’s claim to have offered paid time off to the overall JDH workforce was false. Russell’s response was to ignore the evidence and reiterate the disproven claim – though adding the previously unmentioned caveat that many workers had not actually availed themselves of this ostensible offer of paid leave.

The WRC asked Russell to back up its claim, by providing the kind of proof that would undoubtedly exist if the claim were true: for example, a clear answer to the question of how many non-management employees took the leave, a description of the steps the company took to inform the factory’s 1,800 workers of the offer, a list of the date or dates on which the offer was communicated to workers, etc. Russell failed to provide any of this information, claiming that it had already “addressed the issue directly with universities.” When the WRC contacted affiliate universities to inquire as to whether the company had provided them with proof that a factory-wide program of paid leave existed, we learned, unsurprisingly, that no such proof had been provided.

It is now apparent why Russell refused to supply such evidence. Examination of the matrix recently released by the FLA reveals that a grand total of 29 people – out of a workforce of 1,800 – received this paid leave. This means that 98.5% of JDH workers did not. (Of course, even out of this tiny group of 29, we don’t know how many were actually production workers, as opposed to managers and supervisors.)

In other words, while Russell claimed to have carried out a program to offer paid leave to the entire JDH workforce, the company’s own data show that less than two percent of employees received the benefit.  The data prove the exact opposite of what Russell has claimed: they show that there was no general program to offer paid leave to the factory’s employees and that only a few employees were favored with such consideration. This is, of course, the conclusion that the WRC reported in April.

8) Russell’s claim that “upon learning” of “some problems” at its Honduran facilities in 2007, the company “took full responsibility for rectifying the situation.” 

The claim is false and misleading in its entirety. First, by “some problems,” Russell refers to the company’s systematic retaliatory mass firing of 145 workers at Jerzees de Honduras and Jerzees Choloma in eight separate incidents over a six month period – among the worst violations of freedom of association to be committed in Central America in recent years. “Some problems” is a phrase you use to describe minor errors, not six months of serial lawbreaking.

Second, Russell did not “take full responsibility” “upon learning” of the problems. Instead, Russell’s response was to deny that the firings were retaliatory and to refuse to take any corrective action – until university pressure forced a change of course. Indeed, Russell refused for more than a month even to communicate with the WRC concerning the firings – despite multiple urgent requests to do so.

Third, Russell management did not “learn” of these violations after they occurred. Russell management directly committed these violations. These were not contract factories, but facilities owned and operated by Russell itself, in a country where it is the largest private employer and where it has senior managers permanently based. These managers were directly responsible for the violations.

It is worth reviewing the chronology of events. The union organizing effort became known to Russell in March of 2007, at which point Russell management commenced its mass firings of the workers involved. Later that month, the Honduran government formally notified Russell management of its workers’ decision to unionize. After this, Russell management’s illegal firings of its employees escalated. A worker complaint was sent to the FLA in July of 2007, at which point the FLA presumably contacted the company. The WRC began contacting Russell shortly thereafter. Following these communications, Russell management fired another group of workers less than two days after they were interviewed by a WRC investigator. We reported the illegal firings to universities in mid-September. At the end of September, more than six months after the firings began, Russell management was still insisting that it had done nothing wrong. Finally, seven months after the firings began, and long after the company began receiving urgent complaints, Russell, under pressure from licensor universities, admitted the violations and agreed to reinstate the illegally fired workers.

Russell’s attempt to rewrite history by claiming that it responded in a timely fashion to these violations and immediately “took full responsibility” is preposterous.

9) Russell’s assertion that its reinstatement offers to the 145 illegally fired workers in January 2008 somehow proves that it has not subsequently violated workers’ rights.

As the WRC reported to universities in January 2008, Russell had fulfilled the elements of an agreement on remediation that included offers of reinstatement to the 145 fired workers. Unfortunately, a few months later, Russell reinitiated the campaign of coercion and intimidation of which those 145 firings has been a part – and pursued that campaign throughout the remainder of 2008. The campaign culminated in the closure of the Jerzees de Honduras factory.

Russell appears to be arguing that because it took steps to correct the violations it committed in 2007, it is therefore inconceivable that the company could have committed any further violations after that point. The illogic of this claim is self-evident. Moreover, since both the WRC and the FLA’s fact-finding concluded that Russell committed very serious violations after that point, it is unclear why Russell thinks this claim will be persuasive.

10) Russell’s claims that workers in Honduras have no desire to exercise their associational rights.

In its letter, Russell again insists that the low level of unionization in Honduras is the result of a lack of interest on the part of workers in exercising their associational rights. This claim is belied by the US government, the ILO, major human rights organizations and all other credible observers – who have reported that the primary reason there are so few unions in Honduras and other countries in Central America is the systematic repression to which workers are subjected when they seek to unionize. This includes illegal mass firings of unionists, anti-union factory closures, blacklisting of workers identified as union supporters, and violence and threats of violence against union leaders and labor rights advocates.

It takes real audacity for a company that is the largest private employer in Honduras to systematically fire virtually every worker who comes forward to support unionization at its factories – as Russell has admitted to doing when workers started to unionize – and then claim that workers’ reluctance to join unions “is certainly not because of Russell Athletic.” At this link, you will find the US State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Honduras, which explains the grave challenges workers face in seeking to exercise their associational rights (see Section 6 of the document). Notably, the State Department cites five businesses by name as violators of worker rights – three of which are owned and operated by Russell and Fruit of the Loom.

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions about this information. We will continue to keep you informed about developments on this vital case.



Scott Nova
Worker Rights Consortium
5 Thomas Circle NW
Washington DC 20005
ph 202 387 4884
fax 202 387 3292
[email protected]