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 FLA’s 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 wages—which ever is higher—in developing countries.
Those wages are typically less than one third of the actual cost of a minimally
decent living—what activists call a livable wage—in those nations.

The FLA code does not protect basic rights for workers, makes no provision
for women’s rights (sexual harassment is widely experienced by the industry’s
predominantly female workforce), and leaves verification and enforcement up
to the corporations. Companies who show that their apparel manufacturing contractors
meet the FLA’s 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 women’s 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
movement’s 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 NIU’s De Kalb campus
last December. Last February, NIU’s student-based Northern Coalition
for Peace and Justice (NCFPJ—a group initially formed to protest the
NATO war in the Balkans), put on a well-attended show displaying “NIU’s
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 university’s elected Student Association.

University officials’ initial response was both weak and defensive. The
school’s legal counsel claimed that NIU already encouraged responsible
treatment of Third World apparel workers by licensing its logo through the
Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC—the nation’s 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 CLC’s 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 conditions—no
easy task for NIU administrators.

According to NCFPJ’s 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 NCFPJ’s criticisms,  NIU
adjusted their line. In a late February meeting with seven NCFPJ members and
a reporter from the student newspaper, NIU’s 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 “doesn’t
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 WRC’s 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 groups”—the FLA and the WRC—and 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 labor’s 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

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 university’s 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 NGOs’s
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 NIU’s 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).

“We’re glad,” Grimes told NIU’s legal counsel, “that
our Administration here at NIU is willing to help on this issue. You’ve
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, I’m 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 EU’s ability to reject genetically
modified foods (because in a capitalist society, market forces determine what
can be sold, not people).

“Moreover, I’ve 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 jobs—they don’t 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 rights—it 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 doesn’t exist?”

While the anti-sweatshop movement is
not without real limits—it 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 students—a remarkable number of whom work excessive hours
in paid jobs—who increasingly worry about their own fate. They are determined
to use whatever leverage they possess—as consumers, as tuition payers,
and as young people willing (if necessary) to disrupt the academic machine
through direct action—to 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.