Union Strikers and UB Students Face Off Against New Era



The New Era Cap Company, the official manufacturer of Major League Baseball caps as well as UB Bulls apparel, has come under increased scrutiny in recent months by college activists, sweatshop foes and labor rights advocates who criticize the corporation's practices in the United States and abroad.

Locally, the company has received press for a half-year-old strike at its Derby, N.Y. plant, located near Buffalo.

Striking union workers from New Era announced the escalation of their campaign to win a fair labor contract at a press conference Jan. 16 on North Campus. Over 80 strikers from the Derby plant gathered in front of the University Bookstore at lunchtime to demonstrate their continuing support for the campaign that commenced last summer.

New Era is a major licenser of merchandise at UB. New Era-made caps stamped with the UB logo are sold in the University Bookstore as well as the Division of Athletics' Web store, and UB Bulls baseball players sport New Era caps as part of their uniforms.

The UB press conference marked the six-month anniversary of the strike against New Era. The Communications Workers of America Local 14177, a group of 280 workers from the Derby plant, has been lobbying with the help of students from UB and other universities for a fair labor contract from the cap company. The union is calling on sporting teams at both the professional and collegiate levels to halt the purchase of New Era caps until such an agreement is reached.

According to UB graduate student and CWA Local 14177 Secretary Jason Kozlowski, New Era has been cutting the wages of its Derby workers and employing union-busting tactics to prevent workers from forming an official representational group.

Kozlowski also criticized the plant's safety record. New Era has allegedly fired injured workers who do not recover quickly enough or suspended pay from workers while they were injured. In addition, Kozlowski said, the Derby plant has a rate of injury four times greater than that of a typical apparel production factory.

"Workers often suffer from repetitive task related injuries," said Kozlowski. "New Era has fired workers for not recovering fast enough. They are simply unwilling to address the injury rate and injury recovery issue."

Debbi Schulz, who has been working for New Era for 16 years, believes tactics such as suspending injured workers and wage cuts are all part of a general attempt to disperse the worker's union.

"We just want a fair contract, with the old pay we were receiving, and more medical support for injuries," said Schulz. "But, New Era took all that away in a clear attempt to break our union."

The injury rate is a major point of contention in the dispute. In a Buffalo News article dated July 17, 2001, New Era said injury rates at Derby are higher than the company's non-union plants in Buffalo and Alabama, implying injuries might be feigned or exaggerated.

Company officials upped production quotas this summer, prompting the walkout, after labeling the Derby site its least productive and most costly plant. The increased production expectations amounted to a pay cut for many of the workers whose wages are linked to their output.

Shelley Naab, who has logged almost two decades with New Era, believes the stiffer production standards are impossible to meet.

"I can make 50 hats in an eight-hour shift," said Naab. "I've been there 17 years. This is as many as I can do - I've maxed out. Now they're saying I need to double my workload in order to get my old pay back. That can't be done."

New Era could not be reached for comment on the strike.

The Derby workers have found a great deal of support from college students across the country. Amber Gallup, vice president of United Students Against Sweatshops, shared encouraging news for the strikers at January's press conference.

"We want to announce a major breakthrough," said Gallup. "Four major universities: Duke, University of North Carolina, Georgetown and the University of Wisconsin have all agreed to stop purchasing caps from New Era."

According to Gallup, the continued pressure from student activists prompted these schools to withdraw from their contracts with New Era, and the Derby workers hope UB will follow suit.

"We will continue to force universities to respond to us," said Gallup.

UB students have been supporting CWA Local 14177 virtually from the beginning.

"We hope to continue our success with our protests," said sophomore history major Dan Cross, one of the head organizers of the UB students against sweatshops group. "Students have reacted well, and we hope to make progress with the administration."

The strikers and fellow protestors marched to Capen Hall after the press conference in an attempt to elicit an administrative response. While the group was unable to speak with an administrator, Cross said, they were able to establish a line of communication with the upper echelons of UB's management.

"We have made progress with the administration," said Cross. He hopes to meet with UB President William Greiner in the coming weeks.

Cross expects the group of about 10 UB students will eventually form an SA club and affiliate with United Students Against Sweatshops, but at the present time are focusing primarily on the New Era fight.

The group is holding a second organizational meeting Thursday, Jan. 31 at 6 p.m. in the Student Union flag room.