Ethics Hero: University of Wisconsin

I am not 100% certain that the University of Wisconsin’s complaint about Nike’s responsibilities is fair. The important thing is that the University has thought the matter through, decided what the right thing to do is after serious analysis, and is taking principled action.

The Universityhas cancelled its licensing agreement with Nike to protest what it considers Nike’s inadequate efforts to help laid off workers in Honduras factories that make Nike products. Two factories that abruptly closed, both Nike sub-contractors, have not paid the $2.6 million in severance required  by Honduras law.Under The school’s Code of Conduct commits the 500 companies that make products bearing the University of Wisconsin logo to take responsibility for their subcontractors’ actions. In rejecting Nike, Wisconsin will be forfeiting royalty income from its Wisconsin products.

Nike contracted with the factories, located in Choloma and San Pedro Sula,  to produce apparel. They closed without notice in January of last year, and the legally mandated severance has yet to be paid. Nike has offered  job training and has offered the dismissed workers priority for jobs at nearby factories. However, the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights watchdog, issued a report last month that the company’s response has been insufficient. That may not be fair: making a company liable for the salaries of its subcontractors may just cause companies like Nike to avoid poorer foreign factories, resulting in fewer Honduran jobs.

Wisconsin Chancellor Biddy Martin said, “”Nike has not developed, and does not intend to develop, meaningful ways of addressing the plight of displaced workers and their families in Honduras. ‘It has not presented clear long-range plans to prevent or respond to similar problems in the future. For this combination of reasons, we have decided to end our relationship for now.”

Wisconsin’s action may have a steam-rolling effect, and there will be pressure from student groups to get other colleges to follow its lead. Whether this will have any salutary effect on Honduras workers, or cause other, anticipated results that do more harm than good, is hard to know. The University is following the Davy Crockett motto: “Be sure you are right, then go ahead.”

That’s the formula for ethics heroes. It isn’t important whether I’m sure they are right, but that they are.

4 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: University of Wisconsin

  1. This decision by the U of Wisconsin is due in large part to a remarkable man, Jim Keady ( His 15-year effort to get Nike to take some responsibility for the workers who make products with the swoosh has included living for three months in Indonesia on $1.25 a day, the wage in a local factory that makes shoes for Nike. He’s a Jesuit-educated true believer in Catholic ideas (not necessarily practices) of charity.

  2. Pingback: Ethics Bob

  3. So being actually right here isn’t important?

    I’m sorry, I don’t get that. It’s possible that both the Consortium and UW have not been fair to Nike’s efforts. If that’s the case, how can their actions be seen as heroic in an ethics sense?

    How is it possible for them to be ethics heroes if you cannot even judge the correctness of their actions in context?

    You lost me here, Jack. Ethics is obviously not absolute, and UW may be lauded for adhering to their code of conduct, however misguided it may be. But aren’t correct outcomes somewhat important here?

    • I think, especially for an institution of higher learning, demonstrating that one believes in sacrificing for principle is laudable, even when reasonable minds could disagree about the principle. Yes, I think the Consortium and UW may be asking too much. But taking a stand that corporations doing business abroad need to take special responsibility for subcontractors making their products has virtue, especially when it involves sweatshops. Since it wouldn’t be feasible for an American company to establish a policy of paying the severance for workers in this situation (it would just encourage factories to shut down, I think, without warning), maybe Wisconsin’s actions will help push companies to insisting on more responsible business practices as a condition of getting a contract.

      We can’t require absolute agreement with a principled action before we applaud it, can we? “Hero” implies courage and principle, and I think this action qualifies, even if it wouldn’t be my choice. (Another example I nearly wrote about: President Obama’s perseverance in passing the health care bill in the wake or political risk and opposition. I think it was a mistake, but it was principled and courageous.)

      Davy said YOU be sure you are right, and go ahead. He didn’t say that there had to be unanimity on the matter.

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