Student group seeks to keep UK, Nike accountable with new workers’ rights contract


United Students Against Sweatshops members Faisal Al Z, Will Kueshner, Alex Wood, Aditya Sriram, Cameron Baller, Lidya Yatin posing outside the Main Building before a meeting with the administration where UK announced its new Nike deal. 

Sydney Momeyer

UK apparel is not generally associated with a worker’s rights movement, but that is quickly changing.

On Feb. 6, 2018, UK finalized an amendment to its current apparel contract with Nike that would obligate Nike to comply with the Worker Rights Consortium’s Protocol for Investigations.

“We are pleased that our partner, Nike, has agreed to follow the protocols for factory inspections that have been endorsed by the Worker Rights Consortium,” said UK spokesman Jay Blanton in a statement.

The protocol requires companies to provide WRC’s investigators with adequate access to its factories, to conduct inspections on the quality of the working environment and to make sure workers’ rights are being preserved.

According to the Portland Business Journal, in 2015, UK signed a $30 million contract with Nike that would last until 2025. The original contract was expected to expire in 2017, but the 2015 deal between the university and the company extended the contract by eight years.

The new contract, however, did not obligate Nike to comply with the WRC’s Protocol for Investigations regarding workers’ rights. UK’s chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops recognized this and sought change.

“I think it would be kind of naïve to think that corporations are going to do the right thing on their own,” said Lidya Yatin, a UK sophomore and USAS President. “I think it is important that universities hold them accountable because they are a big buying power for apparel companies like Nike. At the end of the day, someone has to say, ‘Hey, you need to do this.’”

In November of 2017, USAS brought it to the attention of Chief of Staff Bill Swinford and Executive Associate Athletic Director Jason Schlafer that their current contract with Nike needed amending to include the WRC’s stipulations.

“We approached the administration about this as soon as our chapter returned to UK in the fall,” said junior Will Kueshner, a USAS officer. “We explained the situation to them through a letter drop and did a few tabling events. The administration was very open and receptive to our proposal.”

After USAS brought the issue to the attention of Swinford and Schlafer, UK administrators began the process to amend their current 10-year contract with Nike so the university would be associated with a company that follows values and protocol promoted by the WRC.

“It hadn’t been brought up prior to this,” Kueshner said. “It just wasn’t on UK’s radar. I’m not sure if they would have ever known about the issue if USAS had not pushed for the amendment.”

USAS kept up with the process of adding the amendment to UK’s Nike contract to ensure the amendment was added.

“There was no set deadline for the finalization of the amendment, so we just kept pushing for the finalization and making sure everyone was being honest with their work,” Kueshner said.

Following Georgetown University, University of Washington and Gonzaga, UK became the fourth university in the nation to add the amendment to its standing Nike contract.

“Since other schools had already done this, it made it easy for UK,” Kueshner said. “The language was already there, it just needed to be added to the contract and finalized.”

This finalization would make UK the first SEC school in the nation to amend its contract with Nike to include the WRC’s protocol.

“Because we are so huge and known for athletics, I am really hoping that what we have done at UK will inspire other USAS groups that already exist to do the same thing,” Yatin said.

UK has been known to advocate for workers’ rights, Blanton said. Amending UK’s contract with Nike was an attempt to show the university’s dedication to those promoted values.

“Like USAS, the University of Kentucky believes it is important that products bearing UK’s trademarks be manufactured in an ethical manner,” Blanton said.

The amendment is now an official part of UK’s contract with Nike.

“I am writing to inform you that Fermata Partners, as trademark licensing agent on behalf of the University of Kentucky, and NIKE USA finalized and executed an amendment to the Retail Product License Agreement earlier today,” Fermata Partners Vice President and General Manager Jim Aronowitz said in a statement released Feb. 1. “Nike’s compliance with the WRC Protocol is now a binding term under the license agreement.”

In addition, Yatin said she would like to thank group members Faisal Al Z, Will Kueshner, Alex Wood, Aditya Sriram, Cameron Baller, Emily Rennie, Craig Crow, Urooj Nasim, Ashlea McDonald, Seth Gadbois and Courtney Vice for their help in the success of the finalization of the amendment.

“It would not have happened if it was just me,” Yatin said. “A team is key. Solidarity is very important. It shows the administration it is not just one or two people, but rather the whole student body supporting your cause and that is crucial for winning a campaign like this.”