Swoosh Goes Worker Rights
Students, Faculty 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."

Swooshed Away
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 the WRC.

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, Barenberg says.

* 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, Barenberg says.

* 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 I want."

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.

Protesters camp out in front of Johnson Hall last spring. (Photo courtesty of The Student Insurgent)
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.

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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