- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

Professional baseball's sole cap supplier tentatively settled a strike yesterday that had cost the company business with major universities, including Georgetown and George Washington.
New Era Cap Co., based in Derby, N.Y., near Buffalo, reached a tentative agreement that would get employees, who are represented by the Communications Workers of America, back into the factory that the produces the high-end wool baseball hats worn by all major and minor league players.
The contract ends an 11-month strike that began when workers objected to a stepped-up production pace at the plant. It grants workers wage concessions and improvements in working conditions, said Jane Howald, president of the Communications Workers of America local that represents the workers.
"This contract represents the culmination of a substantial effort of nearly two years by our members and their supporters to reach an agreement," she said.
New Era President Chris Koch said the agreement "meets the needs of the company and our workers."
The agreement is contingent on approval by the workers, who will vote on the matter June 21.
The union and its backers hailed the deal as victory for the Worker Rights Consortium, a group of colleges and universities that have used their licensing agreements for sports apparel and merchandise as leverage to promote improved working conditions.
The strike turned into a test of wills between the company and the workers. New Era said worker demands would force production overseas. The coalition of universities, students and unions put heavy pressure on the company to settle the strike.
Several workers complained to the consortium about working conditions in the plant, and the consortium began an investigation. It concluded that New Era had not addressed a number of worker-safety issues, including preventing certain types of injuries. But the consortium left it up to member schools to decide whether they would do business with New Era.
The company initially paid scant attention to the consortium, which it viewed as an outlet for the demands by United Students Against Sweatshops, a campus group. But during the past six months, major universities, including the universities of Michigan and North Carolina, began pulling their contracts with New Era.
The unions, including the AFL-CIO labor federation, also threatened to push Major League Baseball to drop its relationship with New Era, which accounts for 40 percent of the company's revenue.
New Era human resources director Tim Freer denied that the contract cancellations or threats of pressure on the baseball contract affected the company's willingness to settle the strike. He also predicted New Era would win back the college business.
"In any labor dispute, there are efforts to focus on the negative," Mr. Freer said.
But the outcome left labor allies convinced that the consortium's investigation and the universities' action forced New Era to negotiate an end to the dispute.
"Whenever there's an amicable agreement that gets workers back to work and the company moving forward, we're happy," said Scott Nova, the consortium's executive director.
"It's certainly logical to conclude that we had an impact," Mr. Nova said.
Jason Kozlowski, secretary for the union local, wrote United Students Against Sweatshops to say the unusual pressure on New Era was decisive.
"We strongly believe that it is primarily through our coalition that we have been able to bring New Era not only back to the bargaining table, but also to a stance allowing for real negotiations," Mr. Kozlowski wrote.


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