Jan./Feb. 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 1 & 2
W i n n i n g C a m p a i g n s
Students Against Sweatshops
By Stew Harris
With two campus sit-ins on her anti-sweatshop resumé, University of Wisconsin student Molly McGrath already bears the battle scars of a wizened activist.
The 24-year old will have to finish her degree on academic probation. It is punishment for McGrath's role in the takeover of Baskim Hall in February 2000, perhaps the largest and certainly the most animated direct action in the Students Against Sweatshop movement.
Protests on numerous U.S. campuses over the last two years have forced schools nationwide to reconsider where they purchase clothing emblazoned with university logos and sold on campus. Colleges rake in about $2.5 billion annually in merchandise sales.
The demonstrations last winter, including the Wisconsin action McGrath helped organize, forced many schools to enter a sweatshop monitoring group conceived by students called the Workers Rights Consortium.
The gains were hard won. Police arrested McGrath and 53 other students who had hunkered down at Baskim Hall in Madison, Wisconsin from February 16 to 20, 2000. At one point, school security guards showered pepper spray on the students, who shot back with a borrowed fire extinguisher.
"I think a big part of why they [arrested us] was to deplete our resources," says McGrath.
"Most of us spent the rest of the spring semester dealing with legal repercussions."
Those repercussions included a $150 court fine and academic probation. But McGrath says the appetite for activism on campus has not been dampened; a new class of students - and potential activists - arrives every fall. "That's the great thing about student activism: turnover is very high," she says.
There may have been another casualty of the protest. One week after the arrests, university chancellor David Ward announced he would resign. He denies his announcement had any connection to the protest.
Since the protests, the University of Wisconsin has made a number of policy moves to hold clothing manufacturers accountable for their workshop conditions. For example, school spokesperson Eric Christiansen points to the school's implementation of its own standards for verifying working conditions. Ties to contractors which failed to comply with those standards have been severed, he says.
February 2000 also saw the University of Michigan join the Workers Rights Consortium after students there occupied a dean's office for a three-day "sweat-in."
The invading students used irons and transfers to apply anti-sweatshop logos to tee shirts, which they hung out a dean's office windows, taunting school administrators to the cheers of fellow protesters on the grounds below.
Students also waged winter sit-ins at administration buildings at Duke and Georgetown universities. Student actions of varying degrees occurred at dozens more schools.
Actions continue. In November 2000, students at the University of Arizona blocked an administration building for an afternoon.
MAKING KOHL'S SWEAT
One national target is Kohl's, a midwest department store, which activists say imports sweatshop-made goods from two factories in Nicaragua. In October 2000, students struck twice.
First it was Ann Arbor, where police arrested 10 protesters including two Nicaraguan workers blocking the entrance to a Kohl's store.
Three weeks later, Harvard Yard was covered with leaflets denouncing the Ivy League school's investment in Kohl's, which does business with Nicaraguan factories where managers "abuse and yell at the workers, calling them stupid, useless work animals,'" the leaflet says.
In its own defense, a company statement says: "Kohl's will only do business with vendors whose workers are treated fairly, are on the job voluntarily, are not put at risk of physical harm, are fairly compensated and allowed the right of free association and not exploited in any way."
"Kohl's is a great campaign for students in the international community because there have been such gross violations in Nicaragua in the free trade zones," says Peter Romer-Friedman, an economics student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a leader in the anti-sweatshop movement.
"Students have been fired up enough to protest directly at the stores. While no agreement has been reached yet, it is very promising."
THE CERTIFICATION CONTROVERSY
By November 20, 2000, 66 universities were members of the WRC, an impressive number considering the group competes with a second monitoring organization backed by the White House.
Many students denounce the Fair Labor Association (148 colleges and universities are members) because its board includes representatives from six clothing manufacturers, who together can effectively block any plans to change the group's charter.
After joining the WRC, the University of Michigan in summer 2000 also joined the FLA, a move that prompted students to briefly storm an administration building.
"There is no question the administration joined [the FLA] in the summer to avoid student voices from being heard," says Romer-Friedman, who is also a WRC board member.
"The FLA is a sham. Speaking as a student: the FLA does not have full public disclosure, living wage [requirements] or true independent monitoring. The entire FLA monitoring system is corporate-dominated and biased toward apparel corporations that have a monopoly on the governance and board of the FLA."
The issue of verification of working standards is the defining issue between the FLA and WRC. For example, a press release on the Fair Labor Association website lauded plans to deploy "fair labor" labels on clothing made by companies which agree to follow FLA standards.
However, the companies do not actually have to implement the standards - only agree to them - to earn the FLA label. FLA Executive Director Sam Brown says, "The label won't go as far as guaranteeing no hardship in production of goods abroad. Fair labor' will mean that a company has agreed to meet standards and is trying to comply."