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The Anti-Sweatshop Movement
For nearly three years now, American campuses have been experiencing a resurgence of student activism. This new college activism targets the $2.5 billion collegiate licensing industry, which includes companies like Nike, Champion, and Fruit of the Loom. These and other transnational corporations pay colleges huge royalties for the right to place university logos on sweatshirts, caps, and other items that are commonly made under horrid conditions and for deplorable wages in Third World nations. Defying conventional wisdom on the supposedly ingrained moral indifference of American youth, the new student activists are demanding that workers making items bearing their colleges logos be paid at least a basic, livable, family-sustaining wage. They have forced a growing number of colleges and universities to adopt unprecedented codes of conduct relating to the working and living conditions of global workers.
Earlier this year, students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison defied the use of pepper spray and night sticks by over-zealous campus police at a sit-in that compelled UW-Madison Chancellor Dave Ward to agree to pull the university out of the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The FLA is an industry-dominated body put together by the White House Apparel Industry Partnership, an organization formed by the Clinton administration and corporate executives in August 1996 in response to public outrage over sweatshop revelations. Its basic mission is to create the illusion of significant elite-managed progress, thereby eliminating the sweatshop issue as a public relations problem for the companies. Student activists at UW-Madison and other campuses are making the FLA into a public relations problem for university administrators. They point out that the FLAs code of conduct has gigantic loopholes that make it toothless in protecting Third World workers. The FLA, activists argue, is controlled by large corporations, who have veto power over its actions. It requires that manufacturers pay only the legal minimum or prevailing wageswhich ever is higherin developing countries. Those wages are typically less than one third of the actual cost of a minimally decent livingwhat activists call a livable wagein those nations.
The FLA code does not protect basic rights for workers, makes no provision for womens rights (sexual harassment is widely experienced by the industrys predominantly female workforce), and leaves verification and enforcement up to the corporations. Companies who show that their apparel manufacturing contractors meet the FLAs weak requirements will get to stitch labels that say No Sweat into their goods, allowing them and their customers to feel good about the conditions under which the items were made.
Like their counterparts at the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania, who also staged sit-ins last January and February, the Wisconsin activists wanted their university to affiliate with the more community- and labor-based Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). The WRC requires full disclosure of apparel factory locations and manufacturers to pay workers a livable wage and to submit to rigorous, independent, and unannounced monitoring of working conditions. That monitoring must be carried out by independent investigators connected to human rights and labor organizations not beholden to governments, apparel companies, or university licensing offices. The WRC makes specific provisions in defense of womens rights, including prohibitions on the widespread Third World employer practices of requiring pregnancy tests as a condition of employment and denying maternity leaves. After the recent sit-ins, the Universities of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana agreed to provisionally form licensing agreements with the WRC. As of March 13, the WRC boasted no less than 18 academic institutions as members: Brown University, Loyola-New Orleans, Bard, Haverford, Oberlin, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Smith, MaCalester, New York University, Transylvania, Loyola-Chicago, Middlebury, Tulane, San Francisco State, DePaul, and Western Michigan.
It is an indication of the anti-sweatshop movements appeal to students that it has found support at Northern Illinois University (NIU), a business-oriented school that has shown little propensity for protest in recent years. A presentation by national Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) organizer Eric Brakken drew 150 students on NIUs De Kalb campus last December. Last February, NIUs student-based Northern Coalition for Peace and Justice (NCFPJa group initially formed to protest the NATO war in the Balkans), put on a well-attended show displaying NIUs latest sweatshop fashions. NCFPJ organizer CJ Grimes reports more than 1500 signatures on a campus-wide petition demanding that university officials adopt a progressive new code of conduct and sign on with the WRC. That demand recently received support from the universitys elected Student Association.
University officials initial response was both weak and defensive. The schools legal counsel claimed that NIU already encouraged responsible treatment of Third World apparel workers by licensing its logo through the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLCthe nations largest sports licensing company) and that NIU had no reason to look for alternative arrangements since NCFPJ could not prove a connection between NIU goods and sweatshops. The legal counsel also suggested that there was little humanitarian purpose to be served by seeking such arrangements since NIU receives relatively small revenues from the rights to its logo. The university receives only $30,000 from the CLC, whereas giant schools like Michigan rake in millions by licensing their logos. NCFPJ activists countered that the CLCs code of conduct is largely identical with the widely and justly discredited code used by the FLA.
Refusing to take it on faith from authoritarian Third World governments, authoritarian corporations, and the CLC that apparel workers are being treated in a dignified fashion and receiving an appropriate income, NCFPJ members argue that the burden of proof should be reversed. University officials, they claim, should provide evidence that NIU apparel is not being made under sweated conditionsno easy task for NIU administrators.
According to NCFPJs web- site, many NIU sweatshirts, hats, shirts, pants, and other items are produced in places with some of the worst abuses. Gear for Sports, a huge corporation that supplies many other universities, produces NIU goods in such countries as Guatemala, Honduras, Malaysia, and Pakistan, all havens of sweatshop labor. Jones and Mitchell, another major supplier, acquires NIU merchandise from such places as Honduras, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. NIU shirts bearing the Anvil label and sold at the [on-campus] Village Common Bookstore are sewn in El Salvador and Honduras. Labor groups have cited Anvil as a company that consistently disregards workers rights. The long and short of it, claims NCFPJ, is that NIU, like other universities, is selling goods made in sweatshops.
In response to the notion that the small volume of apparel business done by NIU invalidates anti-sweatshop activism there, students posed a quintessentially moral and rhetorical question. Was slavery any less wrong, they asked, on plantations whose owners possessed ten slaves than it was on plantations whose owners possessed hundreds? Activists argue also for the positive demonstration effect that NIU might have on other schools and on the general retail culture. By providing a good example regarding world labor standards, NIU can and should make a contribution beyond its immediate sphere.
Just as hundreds of smaller planters collectively owned thousands of slaves, there are hundreds of non-powerhouse colleges and universities that together make millions of dollars off sweatshop labor.
Stung by NCFPJs criticisms, NIU adjusted their line. In a late February meeting with seven NCFPJ members and a reporter from the student newspaper, NIUs counsel expressed concern over the horrendous conditions found around the world and claimed that the University wants to associate with groups that can best assist in upholding high standards in this area. Admitting that the CLC doesnt even pretend to be a watchdog on workers rights and that the FLA is inadequate in some areas, he agreed to appoint a joint committee including NCFPJ members to study the possibility of WRC membership. Still, NIU recently told the FLA it will likely join that organization and the counsel expressed serious reservations about the WRCs viability and agenda. Right now, he claimed, all of the schools associated with the WRC are small-time Universities....the WRC is just beginning and has yet to prove its effectiveness. He argued incorrectly that the WRC has no real definition of a living wage. In his view, we have two competing groupsthe FLA and the WRCand the matter of which is best is a question of whose propaganda to believe.
Echoing conventional elite wisdom on the supposed special-interest protectionism of the burgeoning movement against corporate globalization, the counsel suggested that the real agenda behind the WRC (which is affiliated with the labor-connected Campaign for Labor Rights) was labors selfish struggle to keep union jobs in America. He gave students what he called a dig by suggesting that they might be engaging in cultural imperialism by questioning wage policies in the developing world. Why are we even sitting here, he joked, discussing the activities of other countries?
Coalition leader CJ Grimes was not amused. She told the counsel that the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Brown are anything but small-time schools. The WRC, she added, is a legitimate organization, they have a full-time staff person, offices that I have been in contact with regularly. They are not unorganized. Grimes then criticized the universitys treatment of the FLA and WRC as equally worthy on the basis of current knowledge. She argued accurately that the problem with the FLA, even with its new provisions, is the governing body. The majority of members of the governing body are representatives of the manufacturing companies themselves. They have the ability to stop any decisions that are not in their own best interest. The FLA also does not require full disclosure of factory locations...The FLA has no contact with the workers, and no independent monitoring. The FLA is too weak. They have been an organization for over a year and they have yet to do anything to show they are effective in improving the conditions for the workers. The WRC, by contrast, according to Grimes, is run and supported by independent Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and student movements that can serve as unbiased monitors. The NGOss are located within the countries in question, so they have daily contact with the workers involved. ....The WRC takes its direction directly from the workers themselves. Student groups are in constant contact with the workers involved. The workers are running this movement, not us. Everything we advocate is what the [Third World] workers have said that they wanted.
While there may be questions about how precisely the WRC should define a livable wage, there is no doubt that the wages required by the FLA do not provide workers anything close to a decent existence.
The Threat of Direct Action
NCFPJ members are proud that their activism has led the Administration to bend its line and open a dialogue. They are also concerned about the possibility that the emergent anti-sweatshop movement on NIUs campus will be buried in bureaucratic detail. They worry about the likelihood that administrators are still not taking the issue and NCFPJ as seriously as they should. They hope that the examples provided by students at Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and, most recently, Johns Hopkins (where at this writing students are sitting in to demand livable wage jobs for all university employees).
Were glad, Grimes told NIUs legal counsel, that our Administration here at NIU is willing to help on this issue. Youve seen at universities like Wisconsin and Michigan what can happen when the University is not cooperative.
Activists are doing their homework on global labor conditions and the arcane legalistic details of collegiate licensing and conduct codes. They are also questioning conventional elite wisdom about the supposedly benevolent and progressive development of global capitalism that is passed on by their business and economics professors and texts.
Listen for example to the following posted commentary from an NIU marketing student and NCPFJ member, who is becoming radicalized partly by her engagement with the materialism of the higher education business curriculum: Being a student of marketing, Im told that environmental protections, labor laws, and food standards are all considered non-tariff trade barriers instead of ethics. The WTO recently shot down the EUs ability to reject genetically modified foods (because in a capitalist society, market forces determine what can be sold, not people).
Moreover, Ive read books and articles on NAFTA that say that the point of these trade agreements is to create efficiency and wealth in the aggregate (of course we all know where the wealth is going), and NOT to create jobsthey dont even know why Clinton is saying that trade agreements will create jobs. In fact, economists say that the point of the U.S.s getting into any sort of agreement is simply to capitalize on labor and low labor and environmental standards since we have no reason to search for larger markets (ours is one of the largest in the world). It is strategic to capitalize on soft labor (i.e., new, weak, or non-existent unions), according to my textbooks.
They want efficiency, not rightsit is simply not the point of the system, and the terminology used really reflects that (economists are not apologetic about it). And when efficiency means low labor and environmental costs (or low costs in general)human rights by definition within the system is a non-tariff trade barrier. The capitalist system really just needs to be chucked, but the members of business society cannot comprehend anything different, simply because the terms that they have learned in college and life do not allow for humanitarian ends to society. Is this a world we want to live in, where decisions are made by some God-like market force we all know doesnt exist?
While the anti-sweatshop movement is not without real limitsit is problematic to demand higher Third World labor standards without also attacking the fundamental forces of global inequality that make Third World people subject to oppression in the first place the new student activists are undergoing a potentially radical politicization around the issue of corporate-sponsored globalization. They are rejecting both the symbols and the reality of super-exploited Third World labor and speak to fellow studentsa remarkable number of whom work excessive hours in paid jobswho increasingly worry about their own fate. They are determined to use whatever leverage they possessas consumers, as tuition payers, and as young people willing (if necessary) to disrupt the academic machine through direct actionto make their voices heard. Their anti-sweatshop movement dovetails with deeper struggles for more fundamental global change of the sort that was on display during the April meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington, DC. Z
Paul Street is a research associate in U.S. Social Policy and an adjunct professor in U.S. History at Northern Illinois University.