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Industrial Disasters and Student Activism

Participants in a “Shared Planet” student conference make protest materials against sweatshops. (Flickr/craftivist collective)

This winter a string of fires in apparel factories in Bangladesh was followed in May by the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhakka with over a thousand deaths. The calamity reminded bargain-hunting consumers in Western countries of what goes on behind our backs.

The good news is that student movements have shown the way forward by using the power of nonviolent direct action campaigns to force concrete changes in working conditions globally. Anti-sweatshop activism in the late 1990s was the largest student movement since the South African divestment movement a decade before. In turn, that activism has laid the groundwork for an immediate response to the recent rash of fires and other disasters killing the workers who make our clothing.

Just this spring, Temple University and the University of Kentucky officially affiliated with the Worker Rights Consortium, joining over 180 colleges and universities. The consortium is an independent labor-rights monitoring organization supported by United Students Against Sweatshops. This is good news for social health: connective tissue continues to grow that offers safety to people who have never had it.

It’s important in solidarity work to find a way to connect with the live human beings who are on the front lines of the struggle. In a brief video clip from CBS News, for instance, we see and hear workers talk about changes in the Dominican Republic.

Many of the hard-fought campus anti-sweatshop struggles in the United States happened between 1997 and 2001; 14 of them are published in the Global Nonviolent Action Database, including those at Yale, Syracuse, Iowa, Macalester and the University of Arizona. The movement’s story shows the importance of rejecting co-optation by creating an alternative — the Workers Rights Consortium — and fighting for it.

Duke University students were among the first to launch a campaign, telling their president in September 1997 that the companies manufacturing apparel and merchandise with the Duke logo needed to uphold workers’ rights and eliminate sweatshops. Many months of negotiations resulted in a draft code of conduct. This tentative agreement was threatened in the fall of 1998; to reinforce it, the students launched a 31-hour sit-in in the lobby of the president’s office. The result was a firm commitment by the university. Duke became a founding member of the United Students Against Sweatshops, a group supporting many campuses with ideas and resources.

I am not a human!’

In 1997 Georgetown University students learned that their apparel was being made by a Dominican Republic factory in which workers were forced to scream in unison, several times a day, “I am not a human, I am an animal!”

They invited some of the workers to come to Washington, D.C., to tell their stories. The students’ Georgetown Solidarity Committee organized a campus-wide march on the office of the president, involving more than 20 student organizations.

The Georgetown students were among the first to face the challenge of the Fair Labor Association, a non-profit formed in 1999 by President Clinton’s administration “to promote just labor policies.” It was a classic Clintonian move, too soft to deliver justice but effective in co-opting moderates like many in the Georgetown administration. The students staged an 85-hour sit-in at the president’s office to show their insistence on a regulatory approach that had some real promise of success; the administration finally made an agreement with teeth in it. The Georgetown struggle clarified the importance of requiring companies to disclose exactly where the factories were located so that independent inspectors could monitor them.

Students at the University of Michigan used disclosure of factories as their starting point. They began in March 1999 with a sit-in in the president’s office; 200 students rallied outside in support. University President Lee C. Bollinger immediately agreed in principle and facilitated the administration’s working out specific anti-sweatshop measures. Before the year was out Nike gave up its resistance and disclosed information about its factories.

When Tulane students formed their anti-sweatshop group in January 2000 the university had already joined the Fair Labor Association. The students’ demand, therefore, was to revoke the university’s membership.

At that time the United Students Against Sweatshops was putting together an alternative to the Fair Labor Association — the Workers Rights Consortium. The new group would bring together students, labor unions, and universities and do the serious monitoring on a local factory level that would hold corporations, and universities, accountable.

The Tulane University Senate’s social issues committee considered the membership question and recommended that Tulane retain its membership in the Fair Labor Association but also join the Workers Rights Consortium. To protest continued Fair Labor Association affiliation, 61 students launched a sit-in in one of the main buildings, supported by a rally outside of more than 200 students, plus faculty support.

After the sit-in the negotiations resulted in a compromise. Tulane withdrew from both the Fair Labor Association and the Workers Rights Consortium, deferring to a student referendum to be held later.

Going naked

Students at the University of Pennsylvania twice got naked before winning their two-year struggle. They also added a hunger strike to the mix of tactics. Their 1999-2000 campaign showed the increasing unity, networking and experience in the movement.

To start, Penn coordinated with United Students Against Sweatshops chapters at other Ivy League universities to send a joint letter to their presidents. Like Georgetown, Penn students brought former sweatshop workers to campus, this time from El Salvador. Also, like Georgetown, they were greeted by their university with a co-optative strategy, using Clinton’s Fair Labor Association to avoid genuine accountability. The Penn students demanded that the university switch its membership from the Fair Labor Association to the Workers Rights Consortium.

To emphasize their point, the students staged a sit-in at their president’s office. Philadelphia’s City Council passed a resolution in support of the students and the consortium, but Penn refused to withdraw from the Fair Labor Association. The movement grew on campus among students and faculty and staged a new, eight-day sit-in. During the sit-in the students had frequent meetings with the president and finally won an agreement to withdraw from the Fair Labor Association, making Penn the first university to do so.

Students at the University of North Carolina also found it useful to use Gene Sharp’s nonviolent method #22, “protest disrobings.” They organized a party titled, “Rather Go Nude Than Wear Sweatshop Clothes.”

The two-year University of North Carolina campaign included a sit-in to demand the university go on record demanding humane working conditions and better pay at clothing factories. The students had to deal with a different co-optative code — the Collegiate Licensing Company — that didn’t require full disclosure of the specific factories where the apparel was made.

Student pressure finally gained the university’s decision that it would kick Nike off campus if Nike wouldn’t reveal its factory locations and enable monitoring of working conditions. With the university’s threat, Nike complied, and the university signed a new multi-million dollar contract with Nike that built in strict licensing standards for workers, including health and safety.

Responding to the Bangladesh fires

New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was notorious for its unsafe working conditions when it caught fire in 1911 and burned 146 workers to death. The history of the United States and other industrialized countries has been dotted with such tragedies before the working class formed unions strong enough to demand regulations.

So also the Bangladeshi unions have been fighting for protection. Thanks to students, their unions have middle class allies thousands of miles away. The Workers Rights Consortium’s credibility, reinforced by its student base, has made it a player in responding to the recent wave of Bangladesh fires.

Phillips Van-Heusen, which operates Tommy Hilfiger and other name brands made in fire-ravaged factories, has now agreed to a memorandum of understanding between the Workers Rights Consortium, unions in Bangladesh and other labor rights organizations.

The legally binding contract commits Phillips Van-Heusen suppliers to allow independent and public fire safety inspections, to make their factories safe, and to accept worker-led health and safety committees in every factory. That was the breakthrough; now other companies can face righteous anger until they sign on to the new contract.

When Penn students were getting naked to make their campaign more graphic, they might not have realized how much they were helping to grow the world’s protective tissue.

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