In a landmark victory after student protests at U.S. universities, Russell Athletics, the largest supplier of team uniforms and apparel to campuses, has agreed to reopen a Honduran factory that it shut down in January after its workers formed a union.

A two-year campaign, largely led by United Students Against Sweatshops, had prompted nearly 100 colleges and universities to drop licensing deals with the Atlanta-based clothing maker due to unfair labor standards abroad.

The students charged that the company used intimidation and harassment in response to the workers’ efforts to unionize at the plant in Choloma, Honduras, finally closing the factory in January.

The U.S. students conducted what they say is one of the largest boycotts in the history of modern student activism.

“Now, as a direct result of our efforts, we have won an unprecedented victory – the company has agreed to meet worker demands to reopen the factory and re-hire all 1,200 workers, who have been without jobs for 10 months or more,” USAS says on its web site.

The statement continues, “This is one of the most significant youth-led campaign victories in recent times and one of the most significant campaign victories of the global justice movement. No one has ever forced a multinational corporation to reopen a facility it shut down in the global race to the bottom.”

The student group said the victory “has also proven that together, we can successfully fight back when those in power take advantage of the economic crisis to attack workers. … We can fight back – and win – against policies that benefit a privileged few and hurt our communities.”

Jack Mahoney, a Georgetown University graduate and USAS organizer, told the Associated Press, “This is huge. We’ve had a number of smaller victories, but this is the first time we know of that somebody has reversed a company’s decision.”

The student coalition’s nationwide campaign persuaded the administrations of Boston College, Columbia, Harvard, New York University, Stanford, Michigan, North Carolina and 89 other colleges and universities to sever or suspend their licensing agreements with Russell. The agreements – some yielding more than $1 million in sales – allowed Russell to put university logos on T-shirts, sweatshirts and fleeces.

According to the Worker Rights Consortium, “Russell managers carried out a campaign of retaliation and intimidation in order to stop workers at two of the company’s Honduran factories from exercising their right to organize and bargain collectively, a right explicitly protected by the codes of conduct of Russell’s university business partners.”

The consortium said, “This campaign began with 145 illegal firing of union supporters in 2007 – which Russell ultimately admitted and was forced to reverse – and continued during 2008 with harassment of unionists and constant threats to close the Jerzees de Honduras factory in order to punish the union. The campaign culminated when Russell made good on these threats by closing the factory.”

The company had said it closed the factory due to falling demand for the fleece sewn there. The company said it picked the union plant in Choloma because it had a month-to-month lease and costs $2 million less to close than the non-union alternative.

The workers, their union and their supporters did not buy Russell’s claim. They say Russell decided to move production to cheaper nonunion plants.

Russell’s reversal of its decision, many say is a big breakthrough for labor rights in the region, which could have a ripple effect in Honduras and other countries where American companies locate manufacturing plants.

A joint statement by Russell and the Worker Rights Consortium said Russell has agreed to “foster workers’ rights in Honduras and establish a harmonious and cooperative labor-management relationship.”

The consortium is an independent monitoring group that inspects labor conditions in factories abroad for colleges to ensure they comply with the colleges’ codes. The consortium has more than 170 universities as members.

Russell is expected to immediately recognize the workers’ union at Jerzees de Honduras, and has committed to collectively bargaining in good faith. The company also agreed to a policy of non-interference and union neutrality in all Russell (and its parent company Fruit of the Loom) facilities in Honduras. Russell said it plans to work with the Honduran union federation, Centro General de Trabajadores, to provide access to organizers and educate employees on their right to freedom of association.

John Shivel, a spokesman for Russell and Fruit of the Loom told the New York Times, “We are very pleased with the agreement between Russell Athletic and the Worker Rights Consortium, and look forward to its implementation.”

The factory will reopen in Choloma and be called Jerzees Nuevo Dia, which means “new day.” Union leaders in Honduras said the agreement would put hundreds of laid-off employees back to work in a country whose economy has been hit hard by a political crisis over who will lead it.

Moises Alvarado, president of the union at the Choloma plant, told The New York Times, “For us, it was very important to receive the support of the universities. We are impressed by the social conscience of the students in the U.S.”