Swoosh Goes Worker
angry at Frohnmayer
for 'selling out' to Nike.
By Alan Pittman
UO President Dave Frohnmayer's decision to withdraw from the Worker Rights Consortium
based on a legal opinion may have pleased Nike CEO and UO mega-donor Phil Knight,
but it left many faculty and students angry.
"The [Faculty] Senate was disappointed," says English Professor and Senate
President James Earl. A lot of people on campus see Frohnmayer as hiding behind a
sham legal opinion to justify his decision to pull out of the WRC, says Earl.
"It's a pretty partisan legal opinion," Earl says. "The university's
legal opinion was for the purpose of arguing our way out of the WRC." Frohnmayer's
repeated public attacks on the group have made it clear, "he has no intent of
joining the WRC, he doesn't like the WRC, he never has," Earl says.
"This is really Frohnmayer using his power to weasel out of commitments he made
and get back on good terms with the corporate donors," says Halle Williams,
a student who's worked to bring the WRC to campus. "A lot of students basically
see Frohnmayer as a really big liar right now."
Relying on the legal opinion was a "crafty" strategy for Frohnmayer
to duck out of the WRC "without raising a lot of hoopla," says Sarah Jacobson,
a new UO alum who helped lead the student protests that resulted in the UO joining
the WRC last spring. But she says, "to me it's obvious that they're selling
out and that they're controlled by this relationship with Nike."
Oregonians on both ends of the political spectrum have criticized the move. An Oregonian
newspaper editorial stated the conservative paper's opinion that the UO should never
have joined the WRC, but the paper agreed with critics that it was "hypocrisy"
to rely on "legalisms" to withdraw from the group. "The only principle
clearly at work here is regaining the loyalty of an important alum," the Oregonian
wrote. The Portland alternative Willamette Week named Frohnmayer its "Rogue
of the Week." Frohnmayer "is showing more loyalty to the Swoosh than to
the students and professors who were not swayed by Nike dollars."
This all started a year and a half ago when students concerned about third-world
sweatshops began pressing the UO to join the newly forming Worker Rights Consortium.
The WRC plans to provide independent human rights monitoring of factories where university
logo apparel is made. After months of protests, including a sit-in at Johnson Hall
and a unanimous recommendation from the Faculty Senate, Frohnmayer agreed to join
But the UO membership in the worker rights group infuriated Knight. The UO's biggest
donor swore he would never give to the UO again. The UO had hoped to get up to $30
million from the billionaire for an expanded football stadium. But Knight said joining
the watchdog group had "shredded the bonds of trust" he had with the UO.
Nike has long been criticized by human rights and labor groups for abusive working
conditions and low wages in third-world factories.
Conservative alumni quickly attacked Frohnmayer for losing the Nike millions. Frohnmayer
soon began to distance himself and the UO from the WRC, repeatedly praising Nike
and attacking the WRC in public statements. In September, Frohnmayer reportedly consulted
with Knight before surprising the campus with a decision to join the Fair Labor Association
(FLA), a rival monitoring group founded, funded and backed by Nike and other corporations
and criticized by worker rights advocates as a PR sham.
Last month, Frohnmayer checked with Knight again before surprising students and faculty
a second time. Frohnmayer announced that he would refuse to pay dues to the WRC based
on a legal opinion from UO General Counsel Melinda Grier arguing that to do so would
be illegal and open the university to liability. Grier claimed the WRC had not yet
incorporated, had not yet filed as a non-profit, and served no public purpose justifying
a dues payment.
Just after Frohnmayer pulled back from the WRC, Knight announced in an interview
with The Oregonian that he would again begin attending UO football games, saying
the WRC retreat had made him more comfortable with the university.
In response to criticism that Frohnmayer has sold out the university to the billionaire
sneaker baron, Frohnmayer has said the legal opinion by Grier left him no choice
but to refuse to pay dues.
But many of the facts alleged in Grier's opinion are now in doubt. WRC board Chairman
Mark Barenberg, a Columbia Law School pProfessor, issued a statement with a point-by-point
rebuttal of the concerns raised in Grier's Oct. 9 legal opinion.
Barenberg noted that neither Grier nor Frohnmayer nor anyone else from the UO had
contacted him personally to discuss their concerns before deciding to withdraw from
the WRC. Here is Barenberg's rebuttal:
* Grier said the WRC wasn't incorporated. The WRC is a fully certified corporation,
* Grier said the WRC hasn't approved bylaws. The WRC board has unanimously approved
bylaws, Barenberg says.
* Grier said the WRC wasn't a tax-exempt organization. As a newly formed group, the
WRC has applied for non-profit status and is awaiting a decision from the IRS. The
group is confident it will be awarded tax-exempt status retroactive to its date of
incorporation, Barenberg says.
* Grier said the UO could be held liable as a "member" of the WRC. The
WRC is not a membership organization and university members can't be held liable,
* Grier said the UO would receive nothing in return for its dues. The WRC is committed
to provide member universities with "in-depth fact-finding and reporting about
the working conditions prevailing at factories that produce logo-ed apparel for university
licensees," Barenberg says.
The UO is "unique" among the 64 universities that are associated with the
WRC in raising these legal concerns as an obstacle to paying dues and joining the
consortium, says WRC staffer Maria Roeper. Some institutions have asked for information
and clarifications, but "For the most part, it doesn't seem to be a problem
except for the UO," Roeper says.
Roeper says contrary to public criticism from Frohnmayer, the WRC is "moving
along quite well" towards fulfilling its watchdog role. Roeper says she suspects
the UO has other reasons for not committing to the worker rights group. "We
need to figure out what the real concerns are."
To Seth Quackenbush, a student activist for the WRC, what really concerns the UO
is obvious -- Knight's $30 million. "As far as the university is concerned,
the university has every reason in the world to disassociate from the WRC."
But UO officials continue to hide behind the legal opinion. Dave Frohnmayer did not
respond to a request for comment. His office referred questions to the UO PR department.
UO PR director Maureen Shine responds, "Again, nothing has changed since that
[Melinda Grier's decision] was rendered and ... her decision that we couldn't pay
dues and Dave's adherence to that." Shine referred further questions to Grier.
Grier denies her legal opinion is designed to provide Frohnmayer political cover
for leaving the WRC. "This isn't hiding behind a legalism," she says. "I
was asked a question and I came up with the best legal answer I could." Grier
adds, "I wouldn't work here if I had a president that said this is the opinion
The WRC says it mailed its rebuttal to Frohnmayer on Oct. 30 and the group posted
Barenberg's statement on the internet. But Grier says she herself hasn't received
the response from the WRC about her legal opinion. "I haven't gotten anything."
"That's fairly astonishing," says Earl. Earl says he downloaded the statement
from the WRC website. "I'm kind of amazed" the legal counsel hasn't taken
the time to do the same, Earl says.
But Grier says that she won't review the WRC rebuttal to her opinion unless Frohnmayer
asks her to. "I sort of wait and see what the president asks me for."
Grier shrugs off questions about Barenberg's responses to her written opinion and
why no other universities' lawyers have raised the same concerns. "Who knows,"
she says. "Lawyers disagree."
UO Philosophy Prof. Cheyney Ryan, a member of Frohnmayer's faculty advisory committee,
questions the UO's failure to review its opinion based on the WRC's response. "Does
that strike you as a credible position?"
"The legal issues raised by the university are very unclear," Ryan says.
The opinion "seems as if it was inaccurate when it was released," he says.
"The university could be more concerned about the accuracy of its public statements."
Grier, who's in her second year as UO general counsel, says her opinion was reviewed
and approved by the attorney general's office.
Deputy Attorney General David Schuman acknowledged that he reviewed the document.
Schuman worked with Frohnmayer when the UO president served as attorney general and
when Frohnmayer was UO law school dean and Schuman was a law professor. Schuman defended
Frohnmayer and Grier. It's "dead wrong" to accuse Frohnmayer of hiding
behind legalisms, he says. "I don't think Dave Frohnmayer asks for legal advice
to have something to hide behind."
"The most significant part" of Grier's opinion is the concern that the
WRC isn't incorporated, which protects participants from liability, says Schuman.
Schuman says he doesn't necessarily believe the WRC's claim that it is in fact incorporated.
"That seems to be a factual discrepancy, and I'm in no position to say who is
right," he says.
But a quick search on the Internet reveals a document from the New York Secretary
of State website indicating that the WRC was officially registered as a not for profit
corporation on Oct. 5, four days before Grier wrote her opinion.
Ryan notes that it took him "30 seconds" to look up the WRC phone number
and get them to fax him the incorporation document.
"We're not in business to keep our eyes closed," Schuman claims. But he
agrees with Grier that the general counsel can't check the facts and review the earlier
opinion unless Frohnmayer instructs her to do so.
Prof. Earl says that given Frohnmayer's stated dislike for the worker rights group,
that's not likely to happen. "Obviously, Frohnmayer is not going to ask her
to review her opinion."
"I think it's pretty revealing that Frohnmayer is controlling this whole thing,"
says Jacobson. Contrary to PR claims, "it's going to come down to his call."
Frohnmayer's surprise announcement that he was pulling back from the WRC left many
faculty "startled" and unsure what to do, says Earl. Discussion among faculty
and any possible faculty senate resolutions regarding WRC membership may heat up
at the end of March when a committee report is due, says Earl.
Frohnmayer appointed the committee of faculty, students and administrators to review
continued membership in the WRC after the UO joined the group last spring. Earl says
the diverse committee has a broad charge and could look at the legal issues, FLA
membership, and paying dues to rejoin the WRC.
out in front of Johnson Hall last spring. (Photo courtesty of The Student Insurgent)
Student Williams also expects the WRC issue will heat up in the spring, the traditional
time for student activism.
But students acknowledge the "backlash" from alumni after Knight withdrew
his millions and the legal confusion has left the WRC movement on campus weaker than
it was last year when it organized sit-ins of Johnson Hall to successfully press
for membership. "I don't think building occupations are in the near future,"
says Jacobson. "They're really trying to build support."
Williams says some students are demoralized after working a year and a half to get
the UO to join the WRC. "In one day Frohnmayer could make this decision to turn
it all around. That's really disheartening."
But Quackenbush says, "students are starting to mobilize again now." They're
angered by the "total hypocrisy and blatant fawning before the UO donors"
and the "legalized slavery" in lawless third-world dictatorships that corporations
exploit for their bottom line, he says.
Jacobson says WRC activists don't fall for Knight's calculated "hype" in
the media that his personal feelings were grievously hurt when the UO joined the
WRC. Jacobson says Knight's move to pull funding was a "strategic" business
decision based on the WRC's threat to Nike's use of cheap labor to boost profits.
Earl says "the university should feel responsible for taking a firm ethical
position" on sweatshop issues. But he says the real issue on campus is not so
much the WRC and the downsides of globalization, but control by corporate donors.
The WRC is a much bigger issue at the UO than at other campuses because of Knight,
Earl says. "If it weren't for Phil Knight pulling his support from the university,
nobody would give a damn about it."
"The issue has always been how does the university deal with major donors now
that state funding has been withdrawn," Earl says. He says there is a "large
constituency" on campus and in the state opposed to corporate control of the
university. But at the same time, "it's a paradox," Earl says. "We're
caught right now because we need money."
Earl compares the situation to politicians "constantly begging for money"
from corporate campaign contributors. The money race "is very disturbing to
the university," he says.
But Earl also questions whether "the amount of money we're raising improves
the academic quality at all." Nike's pledge and millions more from other donors
was intended for new stadiums and basketball arenas. At the UO, "athletics is
a gigantic industry with gigantic needs for money," Earl says.
Another big question that's come up is the faculty's shared governance with the president,
Earl says. Frohnmayer's decision to join the FLA and leave the WRC without consulting
the Senate, created a "governance crisis," he says. "People wondered
what the Senate was for."
Under the UO charter, Earl says the Senate has the power to approve curriculum and
student disciplinary actions. On administrative matters, such as the WRC, the Senate's
role is advisory to the president. But Earl says in the past the president has almost
always consulted with and taken the Senate's advice. "The Phil Knight thing
broke the camel's back."
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