Cries of "What's disgusting? Union Busting!" rang throughout North Campus last Wednesday as a group of approximately 150 protestors marched from Alumni Arena to the academic spine in a mass display of dissatisfaction with the activities of the New Era cap company.
Striking workers from the Derby, N.Y. New Era apparel plant joined with UB Students Against Sweatshops to increase awareness of New Era's alleged mistreatment of employees and in an effort to acquire a fair labor contract for the Derby factory workers.
Student groups such as the Nickel City Radicals, a "progressive" cheerleading squad, entertained the crowd with cheers at each of the three stops on the march. Jean Dickson, a UB librarian, sang protest songs such as "Working Day Blues" as she strummed her acoustic guitar.
The allegations leveled against New Era Inc. include firing workers for not recovering from injuries or surgeries fast enough, cutting pay wages in half and utilizing sweatshop labor in foreign nations, such as Bangladesh. New Era manufacturers caps bearing the UB logo for university athletic teams.
Although the Communication Workers of America Local 14177's strike began in July of last year, talks with the company did not even begin until late last month.
"Originally, New Era had shown no interest in meeting, or even acknowledging the needs of its workers," said Jason Kozlowski, union secretary for CWA Local 14177.
The pressure from student activists and community supporters has been instrumental in initiating talks between the union and New Era. Kozlowski believes the added pressure from Students Against Sweatshops here and nationwide has assisted the Derby workers in their cause.
"Certainly, the added pressure from UB students and nationwide students has helped considerably," Kozlowski said.
Kozlowski added that he was extremely pleased with the number of protestors who came out to the rally.
"The support from the UB community has been excellent," he said.
Maria Whyte, director of the collation for economic justice, also applauded the impressive show of support.
"I'm extremely impressed by the way the community pulled together in support of the New Era workers," Whyte said.
Dan Cross, a sophomore political science major, is one of the major organizers of UB's Students Against Sweatshops. He was also extremely pleased with the staggering number of students and workers who came out in support of the cause.
"I felt great about it," said Cross. "One of our goals from the beginning was to increase membership, and with this rally I saw a lot of new faces."
During the national day of action last month, New Era received so many e-mails to its account that it was forced to shut down that name and open a new address. Activism campaigns on campuses nationwide have heightened awareness of the issue, and six universities that had been licensing New Era products have since dropped their contracts. Activists have been contacting major retailers of New Era such as Footlocker and Fortune Brands, urging them to stop selling the products in their stores.
While UB has yet to drop its contract with New Era, administrators are concerned with the circumstances that Cross and his group have brought to light.
Vice President for Student Affairs Dennis Black has asked the UB Office of Trademarks and Licensing to investigate the alleged actions of New Era.
"As a public university, it is not appropriate to take a stance in a major labor dispute," said Black. "We will, however, protect our students' right to voice their opinions."
Cross feels that by not dropping the New Era contract, UB has taken a position in support of the company.
"We met with [UB President William Greiner] and Black in February," said Cross. "They've kind of faded away since."
It is noteworthy that the University Bookstore, which is the largest distributor of New Era caps on campus, is not directly controlled by the administration, but by the Follet Higher Education Group.
Furthermore, UB requires each corporation to sign a fair labor contract before it can be licensed as a merchandise distributor.