- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

Visit any college campus, and it soon becomes clear that the all-American baseball cap is de rigueur attire for most male students and for a significant number of the fairer sex as well. It's a safe bet that more than 90 percent of those all-American hats are today made in foreign countries, including China, Indonesia, Bangladesh and other Third World emerging markets where the average hourly wage, the AFL-CIO incessantly reminds us, is less than a quarter. And now, believe it or not, the AFL-CIO itself is doing its best to force New Era Cap Company, the last remaining large baseball cap manufacturer in the United States and the largest embroidery company in America, to transfer its highly customized, high-end product line and more than 1,000 jobs, all relatively high-paying overseas.
As part of a coordinated campaign initiated by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the AFL-CIO-affiliated union representing New Era's production facility in Derby, New York, the AFL-CIO has urged its 13 million members to boycott the products of New Era. These products include official Major League Baseball caps New Era has produced Major League Baseball's woolen caps since the 1930s and top-of-the-line hats for hundreds of colleges and universities. The Derby plant, which is in western New York, has been on strike since July. It's the first strike in New Era's 82-year history of making caps in America.
As part of its strategy, the CWA has enlisted the help of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). It is a group of well-meaning college students (no doubt wearing cheaply priced caps produced in China) that was formed mostly for the purpose of eliminating sweatshop conditions that have been prevalent for years at foreign production facilities, where the vast majority of collegiate paraphernalia is produced. Turning the concept of "sweatshop" on its head in a way that would have amazed George Orwell, USAS has accused Chris Koch, the fourth-generation CEO of the family-owned business, of being "a sweatshop employer."
Now, unionized New Era employees at the firm's Buffalo facility, which is operating under the virtually identical terms rejected by the CWA at Derby, earn an average wage of $12 per hour. Some earn an hourly rate, which is based on productivity, of nearly $20. All have health benefits extensively subsidized by the firm, which also matches 10 percent of an employee's 401(k) contribution. Other benefits include company-paid vacations and mid-year bonuses. It goes without saying that the facilities are well-lit and air-conditioned. These are what the USAS and striking CWA members consider to be "sweatshop" conditions.
We say "striking CWA members" to distinguish them from the 25 percent of their CWA union brothers and sisters who have crossed CWA's picket line to keep New Era's Derby plant producing. (The unionized workers at the Buffalo plant, as noted above, have remained on the job, altogether ignoring the CWA strike.) It is a very big deal when 25 percent of a powerful union's membership tells the union leadership to pound salt. Yet this is precisely what 85 New Era workers at Derby have effectively told the CWA. It is all the more amazing when one considers that striking CWA workers not only receive $300 per week strike benefits but also about $400 in unemployment compensation. That means they are earning more by striking than by working. Adding insult to injury is the fact that New Era's unemployment premiums will increase because New York law permits striking workers to receive unemployment benefits.
Another key ingredient in the coordinated campaign against New Era is the role played by two organizations, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and the Fair Labor Association (FLA). These competing groups represent colleges and universities, ensuring them that companies producing goods under their licenses adhere to acceptable workplace codes of conduct. The WRC, which reserves five of its board seats for USAS, issued a scathing report on conditions in New Era's Derby facility less than a month after the strike began. New Era issued hundreds of pages in rebuttal. The WRC has used the report to lobby universities to cancel their licenses with New Era.
Meanwhile, the FLA hired an independent auditor and paid for its review of all of New Era's facilities, which are located in New York and Alabama. On the particularly contentious issues of safety and health, the independent report concluded that New Era "has a satisfactory safety plan in place at all locations" and that the firm "has an especially well-developed ergonomics program, which began in the early 1990s, well before ergonomics programs were made mandatory by [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)]." The report noted that all previous OSHA violations have been corrected. "Conditions discovered by the assessment team were immediately corrected wherever possible," the report said, while other arrangements were being undertaken to resolve the remaining issues. In other words, where problems occurred, the firm worked to solve them hardly the actions of "a sweatshop employer."
"In my 25 years in the apparel industry," Mr. Koch observed recently, "I never thought I'd see the day that an American labor union would be in effect telling their membership and the public that it's better to buy foreign-made goods." By pressuring universities to sever their ties with New Era, the coordinated campaign by the CWA and AFL-CIO, whose regional councils have recently begun lobbying Major League Baseball to cancel its license with New Era, will have the effect of forcing more than 1,000 relatively high-paid apparel jobs overseas, where real sweatshops are common. Go figure.


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