Anti-sweatshop sit-in wins out
By biconews On 22 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives | With 0 Comments

By Adam Berg

To what lengths should university students go to make their voices heard? That was the question on everyone’s mind at the University of Pennsylvania over the past two weeks.

Penn Students Against Sweatshops began a sit-in in the UPenn president’s office Monday, Feb. 7, to demand that UPenn President Judith Rodin take concrete steps to address the problem of sweatshop labor employed in the manufacture of school clothing. After a period of nine days, Rodin and the student protestors reached an agreement that ended the sit-in and left the future of UPenn’s labor practices full of possibilities, although somewhat uncertain.

The sit-in was the climax of a protracted struggle between the administration and campus activists. The students felt driven to a sit-in by the administration’s refusal to negotiate in good faith, while the administration accused the students of lacking patience and respect for university procedure.

Students at UPenn began a public awareness campaign in February 1999, initially focusing on the independent monitoring of working conditions and full public disclosure ot then-obscured factory locations. In March, administrations from the eight Ivy League schools signed on to the Fair Labor Association with out consulting the faculty or the students who had first made sweatshops a campus issue.

According to the Union ot Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!, AFL-CIO), the Fair Labor Association “requires companies to take no meaningful steps toward provision of a living wage” and “fails to protect the right to organize in countries where that right is systematically denied. The Union also states that it “allows companies to pick the factories that will be inspected by monitors chosen and paid by the company, exelude up to 95 percent of a company’s production facilities from inspection, and creates multiple barriers to public access to information.”

In April, after realizing what the administration had done without consulting them, the student activists and student government at UPenn set a deadline of Oct. 15 for the FLA to incorporate more effective monitoring and higher standards. Over the coming months students presented to administrators numerous proposals of ways to strengthen the FLA. All were rejected.

During the week of the Oct. 15 deadline for FLA reform, United Students Against Sweatshops officially unveiled their alternative to the FLA, the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC). After six months without any progress toward reforming the FLA, and armed with an alternative - the Worker Rights Consortium - the students set a deadline of Feb. 1 for the school to pull out of the FLA.

In October, attempting to schedule discussions on the FLA and WRC, UPenn students requested meetings with President Rodin. They were turned down over 30 times. Only in November, after a group of students occupied the president’s office for an hour and a half, did she agree to meet with them. The meetings proved to be not fruitful, with Rodin repeatedly saying she had not seen enough information, and that the school would neither pullout of the FLA nor join the WRC by the Feb. 1 deadline.

In December, the students pleaded their case to the University Council, a body composed of staff, administration, faculty, graduate students and undergraduates who make non-binding recommendations to the administration.

Over winter break the students were informed that a task force had been established to originate a new code of conduct for the university. The students felt the administration was stalling, avoiding the issue of the FLA and WRC and trying to switch the focus to only the code of conduct, a set of principles without an enforcement mechanism such as the WRC or FLA.

Students Against Sweatshops continued to campaign and meet with the administration during January and February. They still made no progress, even after Philadelphia City Councilman David Cohen hand-delivered a copy of a unanimous City Council resolution encouraging Rodin and other Philadelphia-area school presidents to pull out of the FLA and join the WRC.

On Monday, Feb. 7, the students began their sit-in. The original demands were that UPenn dissolve its ties with the Fair Labor Association and that Rodin sign the school on to the WRC.

Haverford College signed on to the agreement in December after consultation with a committee of students, faculty, and administrators.

The UPenn students occupying College Hall were joined by friends from Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Georgetown, Columbia, St. Joeseph’s and other schools where students have been engaging in similar campaigns. The walls of College Hall were plastered with statements of support from students from all over the country, student organizations, unions, human rights groups, and even UPenn faculty.

UPenn History Professor David Ludden, one of many faculty who publicly supported the sit-in, released a statement saying that, “The choice between the FLA and the WRC is basically between an organization composed of corporate interest groups and their supporters (FLA) and an organization composed of unions, workers rights groups, and their supporters (WRC).” Ludden also described the politically difficult situation created by the conflict between the FLA’s legitimacy and the WRC’s functional superiority.

The FLA commands impressive resources and backing from the White House, the Department of Labor, and the business community. Yet, students say that even with all of the endorsement and money in the world the FLA would still not be ineffective only at tackling the sweatshop problem, but it would worsen the problem by affixing misleading “sweat-free” labels to known sweatshops using retailers such as The Gap, Kathie Lee, Liz Claiborne, Nike and others.

In a Feb. 11 letter from factory workers in El Salvador, the students were told, “We have learned of the support and attention that you have given us in the difficult situation. This kind of support is what gave us the strength to continue our efforts to achieve a just resolution of our case.” Another letter of support, this time from a garment workers’ union in Guatemala, said, “The owners of the [factory] make [the workers] believe that when the foreigners come to the factory, if the workers talk about the conditions, they could be fired.”

The sit-in seemed to have the effect the students desired, and the issue was moved to the top of the administration’s agenda. In a meeting with the students occupying her office, Rodin promised she would “not stay on the FLA without also joining the WRC.”

The Feb. 16 compromise agreement that ended the sit-in entailed UPenn withdrawing from the FLA and starting from scratch, beginning with a recommendation from the task force expected later this month. President Rodin will then decide which, if either, of the enforcement plans UPenn should join.

Inspired by the efforts at UPenn, the issue appears to be snowballing. In the past week two additional sit-ins have begun. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, students locked themselves together with bike locks inside the chancellor’s office. Already the university’s chancellor has agreed to pull out of the FLA. At the University of Michigan, students set up a mock sweatshop in the president’s office and have vowed not to leave until he signs on to the WRC. A Feb. 16 AP story quoted AFL-CIO President John Sweeney as saying, “I don’t remember a time when student activists were as supportive of the labor movement.”

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