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Pirates Urged to Check Unions' Charges - May 28, 2002

Cap firm accused of sweatshop tactics - By Tom Barnes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Staff Writer.

The city-county agency that owns PNC Park is asking the Pirates to look into union activists' claims that the Major League Baseball caps sold at the ballpark are made by a New York company that uses overseas sweatshops.

Labor union members from the AFL-CIO and Industrial Workers of the World, along with some local college students, have come to several recent board meetings of the Sports & Exhibition Authority.

They want the agency to support an ongoing national protest by unions against the New Era Cap Co., a sports apparel maker based in Derby, N.Y.

The protesters charge that New Era is engaging in union-busting tactics at its Derby plant, which has led to a nine-month strike by members of the Communications Workers of America.

To put pressure on workers there, the activists charge New Era is moving baseball cap production to the Asian nation of Bangladesh.

The critics say workers in sweatshops there are paid only a few cents an hour under harsh conditions to turn out the caps sold in Major League Baseball stadiums.

The union activists have asked the SEA to talk to the Pirates about urging MLB officials to sever the league's contract with New Era.

"Given the serious nature of the allegations, the SEA board of directors is asking the Pirates organization to look into this matter," SEA Executive Director Stephen Leeper said in a letter to Pirates Vice President Dick Freeman.

"We understand that the Pirates do not have a direct contractual relationship with New Era, and that the production of baseball caps is under a collective agreement with MLB," Leeper said. "However, as an owner with a strong voice within MLB, we ask that you contact the commissioner's office and ask for a report on this issue."

Leeper told the protesters that if they had any evidence of actual labor law violations by New Era, they should bring them to his attention.

One member of the SEA board who has been especially interested in listening to the unions' complaints is Robert Ewanco, a former top official of the Teamsters union.

At a board meeting last week, he thanked the protesters "for the effort to raise the awareness of people about this problem."

In the letter to Freeman, Leeper said the Pirates had shown support "for organized labor over the years," including agreeing to a "project stabilization agreement" that helped avoid work stoppages during the construction of PNC Park.

Given this relationship, he said, "We felt that you would be concerned about the statements made [by the union activists] during the public participation period at our SEA board meetings for the past few months."

The anti-New Era protesters include Kenneth Miller, a North Side resident and official of the Industrial Workers of the World; the Rev. Jack O'Malley, labor chaplain for the AFL-CIO; Evan Wolfson of the No Sweatshops Bucco campaign; and several students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

"This campaign against sweatshop labor is growing," said Kevin Mayle of the No Sweatshops Bucco campaign, "as baseball fans and workers from across the country are demanding accountability from their local teams."

He and other protesters told the SEA that New Era forced the current strike by cutting the wages of unionized workers in Derby from $12 an hour to $6 an hour.

They said the Pirates had refused to accept petitions with several hundred signatures of local people who are complaining about the New Era working conditions.

Pirates spokeswoman Patty Paytas said the Pirates had no record of anyone trying to deliver such petitions, but that she'd accept them if someone brings them to Pirates offices next to the ballpark. She said she would then forward the petitions to Major League Baseball.

Paytas said the Pirates couldn't do too much about the cap manufacturing situation because the New Era contract is with the league as a whole, not with individual teams.

"We will relay these concerns to Major League Baseball," she said.

Leeper got a letter May 10 from Ethan G. Orlinsky, vice president of Major League Baseball Properties, who said MLB had had "licensing relationships with the New Era Cap Co. for many years." Under this deal, New Era "has produced caps for the clubs and for retail sales."

Orlinsky said MLB "has held and will continue to hold New Era to the letter of our contracts with it." Such agreements require the company to comply "with our very high quality-control standards and all applicable laws, whether or not they are labor related."

He said MLB learned about the dispute between New Era and its union in Derby "at its early stages and has followed the situation closely ever since."

In another letter, this one to the AFL-CIO, MLB's chief labor counsel Robert Manfred said the licensing agreements with New Era "do not contain any specific 'requirements or guidelines that address production standards, domestic vs. foreign production and labor standards at production facilities.' "

The absence of such provisions, however, doesn't indicate "a lack of concern on these topics," Manfred said.