Originally posted in The Brown Daily Herald
Trupin ’13: Celebrating 10 years of the Worker Rights Consortium
Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2011
In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, Feb. 20, 2000, campus police entered Chancellor David Ward’s office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ordered a group of students within to get on their knees and put them in handcuffs. These students were part of a group of over 150 who had been occupying Bascom Hall for the previous four days. During that time, the students had put up banners, issued press releases and held rallies, all the while braving not only academic consequences, but also physical assault and pepper spray. Their demand was simple: They wanted a meeting with the president of their university.
This incident, which culminated in the arrests of 54 students, was one of many sit-ins and other actions at campuses across the country in which college students demanded that their schools set codes of conduct for the brands that made their apparel. The result of this movement was the establishment of the Worker Rights Consortium — an independent labor rights organization that monitors conditions in garment factories around the globe, ensuring the freedom to collectively bargain for better working conditions. Governed by a board divided equally among students, university administrators and labor experts, the organization has grown to include more than 180 American and Canadian universities, colleges and high schools.
It is hard to overstate the impact the consortiun has had on the global anti-sweatshop movement. Through the national organization United Students Against Sweatshops, student activists in particular have used the consortium’s well-researched findings to win campaigns against global corporations.
For example, in 2009, when Russell Athletic closed one of its garment factories in Honduras to prevent the workers from unionizing, the consortium visited the factory and documented Russell’s worker rights violations. United Students Against Sweatshops activists were then able to use this information to run a national campaign, causing more than 100 universities and businesses to cut ties with Russell and eventually forcing the company to negotiate with the workers. Similar successes have been repeated on multiple occasions, and for the first time, many companies that once violated worker rights with impunity are facing consequences.
But the story of the Worker Rights Consortium has not been one of unending successes. Numerous obstacles remain, even in the most seemingly innocuous forms.
The Fair Labor Association is one of these. Though its name may suggest an organization similar to the Worker Rights Consortium, the two could not be more different. Whereas the consortium’s fundamental focus is on giving workers a safe means of expressing grievances against their employers and following up worker complaints with extensive factory investigations, the Fair Labor Association simply certifies companies as having suitable standards based on annual investigations of only 5 percent of a company’s factories, which the company picks out. These visits are announced well in advance and only allow for interviews of workers under the watchful eyes of their managers. More fundamentally, six of the 19 board members of the Fair Labor Association at any given time are representatives of the brands being monitored. Four of these six must approve of any major decision that the association makes, including the decision to release a report. In short, the Fair Labor Association is dominated by the brands it is supposed to monitor.
Far from protecting worker rights, the Fair Labor Association is actually a tool for brands to deflect criticism of their labor rights standards. As long as they can advertise their Fair Labor Association certification, notorious labor rights abusers such as Nike and Adidas can maintain a positive corporate image. In the case of Russell Athletic’s 2009 closing of a Honduran factory, the association produced a report that actually contradicted the findings of their own monitor, who had confirmed the Worker Rights Consortium’s finding that the factory had been closed to prevent workers from unionizing.
In spite of its obvious conflicts of interest and its history of obstructionism, Brown remains affiliated with the Fair Labor Association. Perhaps the most surprising part of this is the fact that the University has recognized the associations problems, and even committed to disaffiliating from it if those problems were not addressed by October 1999 — which they were not. Twelve years later, the failure of the University to act on its promise is shameful.
As we mark the 10-year anniversary of the Wisconsin sit-ins and of the Worker rights Consortium, it is important to remember the roles that were played by students, and how they created change. When students asked for their universities to respect the rights of the people who made their apparel, administrators told them that they were naive and did not understand the workings of the world of adults. When students demanded that their voices be heard, administrators told them that they were disorderly and tried to silence them. As we all try to create change in the world, let us remember that there are many ways to go about it. One of the most important has always been using direct action, as those students did in Wisconsin. This year, whether we are finally getting Brown to disaffiliate from the Fair Labor Association or pursuing other causes, let us remember not only the courage of those who came before, but also how they achieved what they did.