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The US Anti-Sweatshop Movement

Liza Featherstone

In malls across North America, it's no longer unusual to overhear shoppers in front of a Gap store debating whether to go inside. "I've heard they use sweatshop labor," one will say. The sweatshop's new visibility is due, in large part, to the efforts of the North American anti-sweatshop movement, a movement now led by college students. Since 1997, students have been protesting abuses in the collegiate apparel industry, demanding better wages and working conditions for the workers who make hats and clothing bearing their school logos. Anti-sweatshop activists are the most visible progressive presence on campus since the South African divestment movement in the 1980s, and they have enjoyed some concrete successes.

Throughout the 1990s, labor, religious and other left groups -- many responding to increasing militance from the workers themselves -- had been deploring the low wages and horrible conditions prevalent in garment factories throughout what is optimistically known as "the developing world.² Their success, in particular, at "branding" Nike as a sweatshop employer had a profound influence on students, since so many schools have apparel contracts with the company. The United Needle and Textile Workers Union (UNITE), too, was outspoken in decrying sweatshops, and like many other groups during this period, successfully used the prominence of companies to call attention to their abuses, most notably in its mid-1990s Guess Jeans campaign.

In 1996, the Clinton Administration, along with a coalition of apparel companies, unions and human rights groups, responded to activist pressure and consumer outrage by creating a unified code, and a monitoring body to enforce it. That body, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) was so thoroughly controlled by manufacturers that it would stymie any efforts at real reform, but -- vintage Clinton paternalism -- it was intended to calm concerned consumers and persuade them that the problem was under control.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of a new labor consciousness were emerging on U.S. campuses, as grad students organized unions, and many undergraduates were accepting internships with the AFL-CIO's Union Summer, the program AFL president John Sweeney launched in 1996 to place college students in summer jobs with unions. In this climate, some students began to raise questions about their universities' connections to apparel companies, beginning to see that if organized, they could themselves play an important role in anti-sweatshop politics. Collegiate apparel is a $2.5 billion industry, and Nike alone had multimillion dollar contracts with University of Michigan, Duke and the University of North Carolina (UNC), as well as smaller deals with around two hundred other schools.

"I'd Rather Go Naked"

But the campus movement didn't begin in earnest until summer 1997, in UNITE's New York City offices. The union's summer interns, asked to research the connections between collegiate apparel and sweatshops for a possible campus campaign, found that administrators were doing next to nothing to ensure that clothing bearing their logos was made under half-decent conditions. One of those interns, Tico Almeida, returned to Duke University that fall. There he began a campaign to pressure the administration to pass a code of conduct requiring manufacturers of Duke apparel to maintain safe, independently monitored workplaces in which workers were free to organize. Almeida and his fellow students succeeded in getting Duke to pass the code, and the victory inspired students on other campuses to begin similar campaigns.

In the spring of 1998, students founded United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a network of campus anti-sweatshop groups (which now has more than 180 affiliates, an office in Washington, D.C., and several full-time staff members, and is funded by unions, foundations and individual donors). Later that year, more sit-ins at Duke, Georgetown and Wisconsin forced universities to adopt policies mandating full disclosure of licensees' factory locations -- so students and other researchers could investigate schools' sweatshop problems, and make contact with workers.

Shortly after the Madison sit-in, many administrators began joining the FLA, hoping to appease the activists. But several unions and a religious group had resigned from the FLA in 1998, protesting that it was controlled by apparel companies, and relied on "self-" or "voluntary" enforcement. Although the Clinton administration tried to get USAS on board with the FLA -- Gene Sperling, the president's chief economic adviser, offered to set up a monthly meeting with USAS members -- students refused, not wanting to be used to legitimate the organization. In 1999, student anger over the FLA inspired another round of sit-ins, and some major universities added full disclosure and living wage provisions to their codes of conduct, while others agreed not to join the FLA.

With these successes behind it, USAS moved on to more complicated questions. Visiting factories and establishing relationships with workers throughout Central America and Asia, as well as working with union and living wage campaigns locally, students began to realize that unless workers have some measure of control over their own workplaces, even the nicest-sounding code of conduct is almost pointless. Students, along with scholars, labor unions and human rights groups worldwide, decided to found an organization that could serve as an alternative to the FLA, one free of industry influence.

The new organization, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) would focus on investigating worker complaints rather than certifying specific companies or factories as "sweat-free." Developing a network of workers' rights groups in the global South, the WRC would aim to foster workers' own organizing efforts. In order to get the WRC off the ground, however, students would need to persuade -- or force -- more administrators to drop out of the powerful, Nike-backed FLA, and take a gamble on their fledgling organization. At many institutions, persuasion didn't do the trick, and students used more confrontational tactics. By mid-April 2000 students at the universities of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa and Kentucky, as well as SUNY-Albany, Tulane, Purdue and Macalester, were occupying administrators' offices, while students elsewhere staged other protests, all demanding that the institutions join the WRC.

Before the spring 2000 sit-ins, only a handful of institutions, none of which had substantial apparel-licensing contracts, belonged to the new organization; by the end of that spring, nearly fifty had signed up. The WRC's founding meeting, in April 2000 at New York City's Judson Church, was attended by students or administrators from forty schools. At this writing 112 institutions belong, fewer than the FLA's 178, but impressive for a grass-roots organization with no corporate backing. The WRC has professionalized significantly since its founding, now boasting a full-time Washington, D.C.. staff, and boasting a startling level of influence with administrators and even corporations. The anti-sweatshop movement has institutionalized in a way that would have been anathema to the student protesters of the 1960s. It will be interesting to see if its tensions -- between USAS, a youthful protest organization, and the establishment-friendly NGO that the WRC has become -- continue to be healthy ones.

"Sí, se Puede!"

In January 2001, over 850 workers at Kukdong International Mexico, a Korean-owned garment factory in Atlixco de Puebla, Mexico, went on strike when five of their co-workers were illegally fired for trying to organize an independent union. During an occupation of the factory, riot police violently assaulted workers who were peacefully protesting the firings. Kukdong contracts with Nike and Reebok to make sweatshirts bearing the logos of the Universities of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Michigan, Oregon and many other schools, so the conflict couldn't have presented a better test case for the effectiveness of the student anti-sweatshop movement.

Like many Mexican workers, Kukdong employees were at that time forced to belong to a mafia union -- with close ties to management and to the local government -- which pays supervisors to support it, resists dissent with brutal violence, and had never been supported by a majority of the factory's workers. The Kukdong workers, 90% of whom are young women, knew they needed a union of their own, because the mob union -- Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants, or FCROC -- had failed to respond to any of their complaints, and they were getting desperate.

Wages at the factory, most workers say, are insufficient to support a single person, much less someone with children or dependents. Conditions at the factory were abominable as well; many workers accepted the job because management had promised free breakfasts and lunch, but the food provided was rancid and worm-infested. According to WRC reports--based on extensive interviews with workers and management -- the Kukdong employees were also subjected to verbal and physical abuse. The Kukdong factory was in clear violation, the WRC investigators found, of the WRC's code of conduct, and those of its member universities.

The workers' organizing had grown out of talks with USAS activists, one of whom had been living in Puebla. The Kukdong workers decided to push for an independent union -- a risky step in the maquila -- because they knew they had powerful allies in USAS and the WRC. When they went on strike, students picketed Nike stores in several cities, and on campuses nationwide, urged administrators to pressure Nike and Reebok. The WRC investigations were widely publicized, and their findings largely confirmed by Verité, a monitor hired by Nike and Reebok. After local media coverage and agitation from students, university administrators and labor activists worldwide, the sneaker companies intervened, eventually forcing Kukdong (now called Mexmode, as during this conflict the factory changed its name) management to rehire a majority of the fired workers, including two of the union leaders, within two months of the dismissals.

In the end, the workers and students won. The FCROC voluntarily left the factory that summer, management recognized that a majority of the workers support the independent union, and by the end of the year, workers and management were negotiating a collective bargaining agreement. The new organization is the first independent union in the Mexican maquila, and one of the few democratic unions chosen by the workers themselves. It is a precarious victory, and activists must still maintain constant pressure on the companies and the government. But it has greatly inspired the region: now workers at the Matamoros factory, also in Puebla, are also attempting to form an independent union.

The WRC is now close to a similar victory in a factory in Indonesia, where repression against workers is even more brutal. Along with a growing economic justice movement, the students and workers are seeking a better kind of globalization. In an August 14, 2001 story on USAS's triumphs at Kukdong -- which changed its name to Mexmode mid-campaign --a dulcet-voiced NPR reporter praised Nike for its role in improving the situation, and said the events showed that "globalization can be a force for positive change." One doesn't have to share her excessive affection for Nike to agree with that sentiment. Like the corporations they're fighting, USAS and its allies are "going global," working towards the internationalization of the economic justice movement.

The international solidarity that was so central to past workers' movements is again manifesting its critical importance. In speeches by labor bureaucrats and liberal politicians, the slogan "Workers of the world unite!" has been making a decidedly non-ironic comeback. Yet, as the students¹ successes show, the old slogans don¹t tell the whole story: in today¹s global economy, the alliance between workers and consumers may prove to be the most powerful.

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