- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

Major colleges around the country, including Georgetown and George Washington universities, are canceling contracts with professional baseball's exclusive supplier of caps in response to reports of unfair labor practices at its plants.
In addition, the AFL-CIO labor federation and its affiliated unions are leaning on Major League Baseball not to renew its contract with New Era Cap Co. of Derby, N.Y., when it expires next year, a potentially major blow to the company.
"Baseball is now in a position that they have to take the New Era issue very seriously," said Ed Feigan, strategic-campaigns coordinator for the AFL-CIO.
Tad Segal, a company spokesman, said the revocation of contracts with New Era, which is near Buffalo, will drive manufacturing overseas, away from the last major cap producer in the United States.
"The effect of this campaign is going to be to eliminate American jobs," he said.
The drive against New Era marks a bold challenge to the 82-year-old company, which produces the colorful, high-end baseball caps that are worn by all major- and minor-league players. Retailing for about $25, the hats provide about 45 percent of its revenue, the company has said.
New Era, which has supplied baseball caps to the majors since the 1930s, also sews them for National Football League teams. This week, it began offering a hat commemorating the University of Maryland's NCAA men's basketball championship.
The universities' pressure on the company came about through their involvement in the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium. The consortium, an association of 95 colleges, investigates conditions at plants where university-licensed sporting goods are produced and determines whether the owners live up to a labor "code of conduct."
"Our leverage comes from the colleges and universities," said Executive Director Scott Nova.
Major Washington-area schools have used that leverage.
George Washington University bumped New Era from its list of approved vendors in February, a step Georgetown took in December.
"Your company has simply not addressed the serious questions raised by outside monitors and employees about your workplace conditions and practices," Daniel Porterfield, Georgetown vice president for communications and public affairs, wrote New Era President Christopher Koch.
The consortium's investigation, published in August, found evidence of numerous workplace-safety problems at a plant in Derby and noted that New Era has lost several cases before the National Labor Relations Board. It also pointed to an ongoing strike at the facility.
In a detailed response, the company rejected the charges.
The University of North Carolina, which last year was the top school in the $2.5 billion collegiate merchandising industry, also has terminated its relationship with New Era. The University of Michigan, which occupies the No. 2 slot, has said it will cancel its contract as soon as legally possible.
The schools' decisions to revoke contracts with New Era and labor's pressure on Major League Baseball comes in the context of a bitter nine-month strike at the Derby plant. Seven workers affiliated with the Communications Workers of America filed a complaint with the Worker Rights Consortium, triggering the original investigation.
Mr. Segal, a veteran Washington public relations specialist, called the inquiry and the loss of college business part of a "smear campaign by the union," which is due to hold a new negotiating session with New Era later this month. Union officials respond that New Era is increasingly desperate to improve its image.
"I think the universities are having a bigger effect than the company is letting on," said Jane Howald, president of the union local.
Unions are now turning their attention toward persuading Major League Baseball to turn its back on New Era when the cap contract comes up for renewal next year. Labor activists, who asked not to be named, said they were working through teams and baseball insiders.
League officials could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Segal predicted that professional baseball would not follow the schools' lead.
"It's handled very differently from university contracts," he said.
Eric Fisher contributed to this article.

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