Victory! University of Kentucky Affiliates with Worker Rights Consortium

By Isabel Cochran, sophomore at the University of Kentucky

Another USAS victory! As of Friday, March 15th, the University of Kentucky has officially affiliated with the Worker Rights Consortium. The campaign at UK began 13 years ago, with students sitting in at the president’s office for several hours and culminating in 14 arrests — and no affiliation.

The campaign was sadly dormant for many years until finally being reinitiated last spring by members of UK United Students Against Sweatshops. During this year, students and community members have worked hard to communicate the importance of affiliating with the WRC to the President Capilouto. Through candlelight vigils, Valentine’s deliveries, rallies, and building the largest coalition of student groups on campus in years, students were able to hold our administration accountable to our core values and Code of Conduct.

This victory is a wonderful testament to the power of students coming together to make change. UK is the 4th largest licenser of college apparel; so if a school this big can do it, any school can (here’s looking at you, Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama!).

But that’s not all here at Kentucky! Days after learning about Kentucky’s WRC affiliation, UK USAS is on the move again — this time against outsourcing on our campus. We’re fighting to protect our in-house dining services employees from human rights violating companies like Sodexo, Aramark, and the Compass Group. UK students have shown that we won’t tolerate our university supporting sweatshops abroad, and we sure aren’t going to allow our administrators to bring sweatshop conditions to our campus.

Lastly, we want to thank every member of USAS. Without this community of empowered students, we would never have won our battle to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium. Now, we plan to leverage our power as students again to protect campus workers and our Kentucky Proud community.

When we fight, we win!

Kentucky Students Call for WRC Affiliation in Wake of Tazreen Fire

By Brock Meade, student at the University of Kentucky

Last week, over 75 members of the campus and civic communities of Lexington, Kentucky gathered to remember the 112 dead and 150 injured victims of last month’s Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and demand UK affiliation with the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization that has led the way in advocating for meaningful fire safety measures to protect garment workers. Beyond remembrance, our vigil was about calling on all brands like Adidas in the global apparel industry to take responsibility for their subcontracted workers and prevent more senseless tragedies like the fire at Tazreen.

Each of the vigil attendees signed a petition in support of WRC affiliation. Speakers included students as well as former Honduran garment worker Soreyda Benedit-Begley, Director of the Lexington Fashion Collaborative, and former Bangladesh resident Syed Zahadul Islam, PhD student in chemical engineering at the University. The Candlelight Vigil was marked by such songs as “We Shall Overcome”, led by student and community members.

As a third-party labor rights watchdog organization, the WRC is unique in that it accepts no corporate funding and emphasizes confidentiality in its interviews with workers. Its governing board is comprised of five students, five community members, and five administrators who receive reports from on-the-ground WRC field investigators. Using these repots, universities can make informed decisions about whether or not brands are abiding by their labor code of conduct. According to UK’s Labor Code Standards, every Licensee’s employee shall be “treated with dignity and respect.” What better way to respect workers than to affiliate with a labor rights monitor that emphasizes confidentiality and cares about supporting workers.

Currently, the University of Kentucky is affiliated with the Fair Labor Association (the FLA), an industry-funded corporate monitor. Now more than ever, it’s clear that corporate monitors like the FLA do not work. Back in September, a Karachi Pakistan factory fire claimed the lives of nearly 300, just weeks after being inspected by Social Accountability International, another corporate-funded monitor.

It’s time for UK to join over 180 other universities (and 5 high schools) in affiliating with the WRC to ensure factory fires like those in Pakistan and Bangladesh never happen again. We remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 as a watershed moment in transforming the US garment industry from sweatshops to safe, good-paying industrial jobs. We are calling on UK to recognize its moral responsibility to respond to the tragedy at Tazreen by affiliating with the Workers Rights Consortium.

Last week, students and citizens came together in solidarity with Bangladeshi garment workers, and workers all over the world. We set aside time to grieve with them, but now we join them in organizing. As we extinguished the flames of our candles, we do not extinguish our drive to fundamentally reshape the global garment industry. We walked away from that night remembering four very important words: together, we shall overcome.

From El Salvador to Indonesia: adidas leaves workers in the lurch

It’s now been 14 months since adidas’s PT Kizone factory closed in Indonesia, and left 2,800 workers without the millions of dollars they’re owed in severance pay. Instead of taking responsibility for the workers who sewed adidas apparel for $0.60 an hour as other buyers in the plant have, adidas has resorted to a web of lies and excuses in attempts to evade all responsibility. Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time adidas has left its workers in the dark by refusing to pay them what they’re owed.

In 2005, adidas also abandoned hundreds of workers in the unionized Hermosa factory in El Salvador and robbed them of nearly a million dollars in legally owed severance. To this day, seven years later, former Hermosa workers and their families continue to suffer from the consequences of adidas’s refusal to comply with University anti-sweatshop codes of conduct. Like in the case of PT Kizone, adidas pledged to give Hermosa workers priority rehiring in their other supplier factories, job training, and in fact, to prevent this from ever happening again by engaging with the government and other stakeholders to find “sustainable solutions.” However, adidas broke all these promises, and none of those efforts resulted in workers getting paid what they were owed. Instead, adidas contracted the notorious Fair Labor Association to convene meaningless meetings with workers, and former Hermosa unionists were blacklisted and denied employment in any other adidas supplier factories. Ex-Hermosa workers still struggle to find employment today.

According to a testimony by former Hermosa worker Estela Ramirez, “7 years after the closure of Hermosa, the workers never received any bit of medical attention, even when there were some workers undergoing cancer treatment, which adidas knew about.” Read the whole testimony here.

It doesn’t stop there – according to the Worker Rights Consortium, adidas has refused to pay over 20,000 workers legally-mandated severance in at least four other factories that were located in the same area as PT Kizone, even when adidas was the exclusive or primary client. It is clear adidas has no interest in a real solution to the plight of the many workers who sewed its apparel. adidas’s CEO claims that it is “absurd”  to hold adidas responsible for paying severance to its former PT Kizone workers; this blatant disregard has robbed tens of thousands of adidas workers across the globe of the millions of dollars they’ve earned through hard work and sweat.

Yet today, adidas announced it anticipates selling more than $2 billion in soccer gear alone this year. What will it take for adidas to stop the abuse and to finally pay former PT Kizone workers what they’re legally owed?

Wal-Mart Suspends Supplier of Seafood

Originally posted in the New York Times, June 29, 2012

By 

Wal-Mart Stores has suspended one of its seafood suppliers in the South as an advocacy group for foreign workers pressed the retailer to improve working conditions there and at a dozen other suppliers cited for hundreds of federal labor violations.

The advocacy group, the National Guestworker Alliance, said on Friday that it had found terrible conditions at C. J.’s Seafood, a crawfish company in Breaux Bridge, La. Several immigrant workers said they had been forced to work 16 to 24 hours consecutively and had even been locked into the plant. Guest workers said they sometimes labored more than 80 hours a week, had been threatened with beatings to press them to work faster and had been warned that their families in Mexico would be hurt if they complained to government agencies.

“It’s one of the worst workplaces we ever encountered anywhere,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a university-sponsored monitoring group that was asked by the guest-worker advocates to investigate C. J.’s Seafood. “The extreme lengths of the shifts people were required to work, the employer’s brazenness in violating wage laws, the extent of the psychological abuse the workers faced and the threats of violence against their families — that combination made it one of the most egregious workplaces we’ve examined, whether here or overseas.”

Guest workers are temporary workers from abroad who typically receive special visas to do seasonal work.

On Friday, the National Guestworker Alliance released a list of 644 federal citations at 12 other Wal-Mart food suppliers that employ guest workers and used that list to assert that the retailer had fallen short on ensuring that its suppliers complied with its standards.

Lorenzo Lopez, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said the retailer had begun its own investigation of C. J.’s, which supplied its Sam’s Club warehouse stores, and had uncovered violations of some of its supplier standards.

“We have suspended C. J.’s Seafood as a supplier, pending the outcome of the investigation,” Mr. Lopez said.

He said that the United States Labor Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were conducting their own investigations of the seafood processor.

C. J.’s did not respond to several phone messages left at its main office.

The Worker Rights Consortium’s investigation of C. J.’s found that some women worked from 2 a.m. to 6 p.m., that the workers were on average paid 42 percent less than legally required and that when the workers tried to complain to their managers, they were threatened with discharge, deportation and blacklisting. One worker told investigators that he was once forced to stay when he sought to leave after working 38 of the previous 48 hours.

After finding serious problems at C. J.’s, the Guestworker Alliance said, it decided to examine 18 other Wal-Mart food vendors that used guest workers.

The alliance said it had discovered the 644 citations at 12 of the companies. While many of them go back to the 1980s, there were 201 safety and other labor violations over the last five years, including 132 that OSHA had deemed serious.

“Wal-Mart is the nation’s biggest buyer and sets standards across the retail industry,” said Saket Soni, director of the Guestworker Alliance. “We want to have a productive conversation with Wal-Mart about its national supply chain standards.”

While acknowledging problems at C. J.’s, Mr. Lopez strongly objected to the Guestworker Alliance’s report and its suggestion that the citations at the other 12 suppliers indicated a possible problem with forced labor there.

“This report, crafted by a union-funded, union-backed group, has little to do with solving real issues,” he said. “It simply repackages old data from up to more than 20 years ago in an attempt to make people believe they have uncovered something new.”

“We work with more than 60,000 suppliers in the U.S., and we have rigorous standards in place that our suppliers are required to follow,” Mr. Lopez said.

He said that if the allegations of forced labor at C. J.’s are found to be true, it would permanently terminate its relationship with that company. The Guestworker Alliance’s report pointed to 33 citations at Tanimura & Antle, a vegetable grower based in Salinas, Calif. The report noted that 18 of the citations had incurred a total of $52,000 in fines since 2006, including one for failure to provide proper training after a worker suffered a severe eye injury when a tractor tire he was inflating exploded.

Rick Antle, the company’s president and chief executive, said it employed 2,200 workers and that 33 citations over two decades was “pretty good.” He said Tanimura & Antle was an “impeccable” employer and provided health and retirement benefits. He noted that none of the citations had involved guest workers.

The alliance’s report also focused on Trident Seafoods of Seattle, saying the company had received 212 OSHA citations and been fined $102,738.

More than half the citations were from 2000 or earlier. But in March 2011, Trident was fined $11,645 after OSHA found that its workers had been exposed to live electrical equipment carrying up to 480 volts, that a major electrical cable had exposed areas and that a high-pressure hose connected to a combustible gas container had not been properly tightened.

Trident said in a statement that any attempt to tie it to a labor abuse scandal “is patently false” and that “Trident’s plant safety and human resource policies are among the best in the seafood industry.”

 

Check out the Video: USC Students Prepare to Strip to Stop Sweatshop Clothing at USC

Trojan pride is an important component of USC student life. Unfortunately, there are still a few things students can’t yet be proud of. The University of Southern California has been manufacturing and selling SC apparel that is produced in sweatshops in third world countries. USC recently signed a ten year exclusive licensing deal with the Dallas Cowboys’ clothing manufacturer, a known sweatshop abuser. An ESPN reporter visited some of their factories in Cambodia and discovered the workers were being forced to work 60+ hours per week under abusive managers for only $0.29/hour (check out the ESPN piece). These atrocities are not consistent with USC’s policies that promote justice and fairness for all.

As USC students and lifelong members of the Trojan family, we deserve to have a say in the companies our school chooses to support. After all, we are the ones who purchase and wear USC clothing. No Trojan wants to wear our school colors sewn by the hands of overworked, underpaid workers.

So how can you help?

Share our video, and then

Come out on Thursday, April 19th and join the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation in letting USC know that the student body will NOT support human rights abuses. Ladies, put on your spandex and sports bras. Men, strip down to your boxers. Let’s show USC that WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED!

(ps. Feel free to wear however much clothing as you want – heck, come in a parka. Just be sure to bring your rallying spirit in solidarity with workers’ rights!)

Eastern Michigan SEPE wins WRC Affiliation!

Amazing work by the CEPE at Eastern Michigan, who just last year helped win a union for University adjuncts and now, just won their WRC Affiliation campaign!

EMU to join Workers’ Rights Consortium after many appeals

By Andrew Poure | THE EASTERN ECHO
Added April 4, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Workers’ rights are at the top of the list of issues for one EMU student organization, and they are taking major steps to ensure the university is up to speed with institutions across the country.

Students for an Ethical Participatory Education, or SEPE, a student organization dedicated to ethics and human rights issues, is bringing a global workers’ rights initiative called the Workers Rights Consortium to EMU.

The WRC, founded in 2001, is an independent monitoring organization, reporting on labor conditions among major brands, specifically in the apparel industry.

At the core of the WRC system is a Code of Conduct signed by close to 200 colleges and universities in the United States.

The agreement outlines labor guidelines to be followed by apparel makers, under threat of termination of university licensing agreements. Items contained within the code include a living wage, a safe work environment and collective bargaining, among others.

EMU is on track to become the latest addition to the group of participants, joining other regional institutions such as Western Michigan and Bowling Green State University, as well as top tier universities including six Ivy League universities. The list has been steadily growing since its inception in 2001.

SEPE worked primarily through Vice President of Student Affairs Bernice Lindke in introducing the WRC to the university.

“SEPE approached me in March this year to request that EMU affiliate with the WRC,” Lindke said. “Several students who are in SEPE have met with me, at the request of President Martin, to discuss joining the WRC.”

Lindke said EMU will pay $1,500 of last year’s licensing revenue to the WRC in order to affiliate, and will be required to publicly disclose factory locations on a regular basis.

SEPE members were encouraged by the experience they had with the EMU.“We had a far easier time at it than other colleges,” veteran SEPE member Phil Patterson said about the affiliation process. “We have a very receptive administration.”

Member Will Daniels praised their contact within the administration.

“Vice President Lindke was great help to work with and she really cares about the issue,” Daniels said.
The final signing of the agreement by EMU administrators is set to take place before the end of the winter semester.

SEPE views the affiliation as a positive step for EMU as a whole; additionally, the group also regarded the process as an opportunity to sharpen their organizational skills.

“It’s been a very interesting learning experience,” member Nick Coffin said.

SEPE has continued to raise awareness for worker’s rights through various events on and off campus and the members hope to build off of the success of the WRC.

“It’s really about making the university more ethical,” Patterson said. “It’s about human rights.”

Eleven victories in 2011: Celebrate an incredible year for the student movement!

You already know that 2011 has been an incredible year. But we think you’ll be blown away by this list of 11 incredible victories that USAS activists won alongside workers this year. Each of these 11 victories builds the power of workers’ unions and students. Next year, as we celebrate USAS’s 15th anniversary, we need to keep building students’ and workers’ power to defeat the challenges that corporations and the 1% pose to our democracy, our jobs and our education. Make it happen by contributing to USAS on the right-hand side of this page. Then share this page on Facebook. Happy holidays!

1.

Food service workers won unions on 11 campuses as students kicked out Sodexo for union-busting.

The “Big 3″ outsourcing giants control the business of feeding students: Sodexo, Aramark and Compass. In 2011, Big 3 workers on at least 11 campuses won struggles to form unions, the crucial first step towards ending sweatshop conditions in our dining halls (see: list of campuses where workers won unions). Some joined UNITE HERE and others joined SEIU. Meanwhile, students organized 6 major sit-ins in Spring 2011 protesting Sodexo’s union-busting (especially in the Dominican Republic), part of the wave of 13 occupations that led to 76 arrests of USAS activists. This month, the University of Washington ended its 25-year relationship with Sodexo in response to protests of its union-busting in the D.R., the fifth college to sever ties with Sodexo amidst protest this year. We proved students can terminate colleges’ multi-million dollar contracts with the outsourcing giants to bolster workers’ struggle for justice, a key step towards reversing the race-to-the-bottom created by lowest-bidder corporate outsourcing of campus jobs.

2.

Honduran workers sewing college apparel won a ground-breaking Collective Bargaining Agreement.

This May, the workers of Fruit of the Loom’s Jerzees Nuevo Día and their union, SitraJerzees, won an unheard-of 26.5% wage increase and safer machinery in their first-ever collective bargaining agreement after 9 months of negotiations. Fruit of the Loom, Honduras’ largest private employer, opened Jerzees Nuevo Día in 2009 after USAS and SitraJerzees ran the largest collegiate boycott of a single company ever to reverse Fruit’s shuttering a 1,200-worker factory in retaliation for union organizing. During the Rein-In Russell campaign, over 100 colleges and the retailer Sport Authority severed ties with Fruit’s Russell Athletic brand. The campaign achieved a first-of-its-kind national union neutrality agreement between Fruit and SitraJerzees. Today, garment workers are continuing the struggle to organize in all of Fruit’s factories across Honduras.

3.

Rutgers USAS won NJ’s lowest tuition hike in 2 decades.

After Rutgers USAS built a coalition that organized a 600-student walkout and a 2-day sit-in that grabbed NY Times headlines, New Jersey’s state university approved the lowest tuition hikes in two decades (1.6 percent for in-state students). Rutgers’ board rejected the proposed tuition hike from university president Richard McCormick, who resigned shortly afterwards. This is a crucial victory as the right to affordable, quality higher education is under attack for all students and especially undocumented students across the nation.

4.

Universities commit to stop investing in HEI’s sweatshop hotels as hotel workers ramp up the fight for fairness.

HEI Hotels workers across the country are fighting for fair treatment at work. Because HEI depends on investments from university endowments, since early 2009 students have campaigned to end their school’s investment in “sweatshop hotels”. In a huge step forward this year, Brown University’s USAS affiliate (Brown SLA) won its multi-year campaign when Brown committed to stop investing in HEI. Then UPenn’s USAS affiliate (UPenn SLAP), had a major victory when UPenn responded to students’ campaign by announcing it has no current plans to invest in HEI. Most recently Yale committed to make no further investment, and Cornell and Harvard have responded to student campaigns, too. As we continue the nation-wide student non-reinvestment campaign, the hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE has placed four HEI-owned hotels under boycott. Plus, HEI has now settled or been held liable on 32 wage and hour complaints for a total of $99,999 at the Embassy Suites Irvine.

5.

College bookstores doubled their orders for the only union-made, living wage college apparel.

This year was a crucial test for Alta Gracia, the Dominican Republic factory where long-time union activists are sewing college apparel, and students rose to the challenge. We urged our college bookstores to support this important project. Orders for Alta Gracia doubled this year, with over 400 college bookstores now carrying products sewn by Sitralpro union members — the same workers who spent a decade together with USAS fighting Nike’s sweatshop abuses at the BJ&B factory in Villa Altagracia.

6.

We beat attacks on Ohio workers’ union rights and won a pro-worker majority in Wisconsin.

In 2011, we fought back against bold attacks by corporate-funded politicians on workers’ basic right to collective bargaining. When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker launched his attack on public employees’ right to bargain, USAS’s oldest affiliate mobilized thousands of University of Wisconsin-Madison undergrads and joined forces with campus workers’ unions to begin the occupation of the state capitol that inspired labor activists worldwide. While Walker’s bill is still in effect, Wisconsites kicked out enough anti-worker state legislators in this year’s elections so that now a majority of the legislature opposes Walker’s bill!

Meanwhile, to defeat Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 (a.k.a. Issue 2), Ohio State USAS found time between organizing a sit-in and fighting a backdoor deal with the Dallas Cowboys to join the statewide effort that collected 1.3 million signatures to repeal SB5 and overwhelmingly won the referendum to kill the bill in November.

7.

Rite Aid warehouse workers won a five-year struggle to stop sweatshop conditions after students took the campaign nation-wide.

After USAS members voted to create a Rapid Response system in 2009, the first test of this system was our campaign in solidarity with Rite Aid warehouse workers in Lancaster, CA, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. USAS-coordinated days of action expanded the West Coast union’s impact directly to the doorstep of Rite Aid stores nation-wide. Finally, this May, the workers finally won a strong union contract that gives workers control over the often dangerous pace of work. Workers also beat back dramatic healthcare cutbacks the company had demanded.

8.

More universities affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium as our colleges’ labor rights monitor completes its 10th year.

It’s been a decade since USAS activists did the unthinkable and forced our universities to create an anti-sweatshop monitor that students dreamed up. Today, the Worker Rights Consortium is the premiere labor rights monitoring organization, boasting over 180 affiliated colleges and universities. The WRC remains unique in its absolute independence from corporate funding, in stark contrast to a certain corporate-controlled monitor (hint: see #9).

This year, not only did U.S. universities including Emory and Xavier newly affiliate with the WRC, but the movement went international in a huge way. In the United Kingdom, where students’ unions control most university apparel purchasing, the National Union of Students voted to affiliate NUS Services, the purchasing consortium for 84 U.K. universities, with the WRC! But in 2012 students will be campaigning to finally affiliate some of the most stubborn major sports schools, including UTSAS at the University of Texas, Austin — the nation’s largest licensor of college apparel.

9.

Santa Clara dropped the corporate-controlled “Fair” Labor Association.

Just as USAS activists compel more colleges to join the legitimate WRC, we’re also beating back the corporations’ sham “Fair” Labor Association, notorious for whitewashing the sweatshop abuses of companies that pay their bills and sit on their board, like Nike and Adidas. Finally, just days ago Santa Clara’s USAS affiliate won its “Don’t Pay the FLA” campaign. Students and Cornell, Penn State and Rutgers USAS affiliates have been escalating campaigns around the same demand for over a year, so the heat is on!

In another important blow to corporate whitewashing, greenwashing and “fairwashing”, United Students for Fair Trade rocked the “ethical consumption” world when they joined USAS in publicly condemning Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair), including its widely-criticized “fair trade” apparel program.

10.

First-ever collegiate boycott in solidarity with tobacco farmworkers hit RJ Reynolds where it hurts.

Last week, Rutgers USAS made a major first step in stopping sweatshop conditions in tobacco fields: the Barnes & Noble-operated campus bookstore agreed to immediately stop selling RJ Reynolds products, including American Spirits and Camel cigarettes. This momentum will propel forward students’ solidarity efforts on other campuses. Last summer, USAS and MEChA activists organized a delegation to the tobacco fields of North Carolina to meet with farmworkers and learn about RJ Reynolds refusing to negotiate with farmworkers’ union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. We were outraged by the working conditions and living conditions, and inspired by farmworkers’ struggle for union rights in spite of their historical exclusion from national labor law. In 2004, some 8,000 FLOC-affiliated farmworkers won the first-ever union contract for guest farmworkers against the Mt. Olive Pickle company after campus boycott campaigns by USAS activists at UNC, Duke, Florida State and Michigan State.

11.

We built powerful new student coalitions to Occupy Wall Street and make banks pay.

With the energy and experience of the spring semester’s 13 on-campus occupations plus occupying Wisconsin state capitol under our belt, USAS snapped into action when the Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up. USAS activists at schools including Northeastern University, University of Washington and New York University were among the first to organize massive student walk-outs to join the Occupy movements in their cities. Many USASers have been arrested defending Occupy encampments. But we know these actions alone won’t make Wall Street banks pay up: We also organized four “Fight Back!” Organizer Boot Camps across the country. There, we trained students from 64 colleges in organizing and campaigning basics, including students from Occupy movements, undocumented students’ groups, and many others. (If you haven’t seen the video yet, check it out now for some inspiration!)

Op-ed: Celebrating 10 years of the Worker Rights Consortium

Trupin ’13: Celebrating 10 years of the Worker Rights Consortium

Ian Trupin

Opinions Columnist

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.

 

 

Ian Trupin ’13 is a COE concentrator who seriously recommends that anyone interested in labor rights and direct action come get in contact with Brown Student Labor Alliance at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

USAS International Solidarity Committee Calls for National Anti-Sweatshop Week of Action

Students take action on more than 30 universities to protest sweatshop conditions in the production of college apparel and demand bookstores increase orders from Alta Gracia- unionized, living wage factory in the Dominican Republic

While USAS activists across the country take action in solidarity with Wisconsin students and workers fighting the right-wing attacks of Gov. Scott Walker, the struggle for worker rights both here and abroad cannot slow down!  Read below about the Anti-Sweatshop Week of Action, and for more information on the struggle in Wisconsin, check out Defend Wisconsin, the campaign co-led by UW-Madison’s USAS affiliate, the Student Labor Action Coalition.

wisconsin

February 21, 2011 –  This week, February 21- 25, students at more than 30 universities across the country affiliated with United Students Against Sweatshops will be taking action to address the fact that their college-logo apparel continues to be made in sweatshops and call on their universities to make a genuine commitment to the only unionized, living wage factory that complies with universities’ codes of conduct, Alta Gracia. Students will be demanding that their schools increase orders of their college apparel from Alta Gracia; affiliate with the independent factory monitor, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC); and disaffiliate with the corporate-run Fair Labor Association (FLA).

Ten years ago, students across the country demanded that their universities take a stand against sweatshop exploitation by affiliating with the WRC and disaffiliating with the FLA to ensure that workers producing college-logo apparel have access to a reliable and independent factory monitor. Today, as a result of USAS student activism, the WRC has more than 160 affiliate schools and has developed a track record of groundbreaking investigations that have triggered USAS campaigns resulting in historic victories for garment workers producing for Russell Athletic and Nike. Students are also demanding once and for all that universities stop paying dues to the corporate-funded FLA, highlighting over a decade of the organization’s failure to report worker abuse and affirming that corporations cannot genuinely monitor their own sweatshops.

As a victory of the student anti-sweatshop movement, the university community can now purchase union-made, living wage apparel from the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic, which employs union leaders who have been fighting against Nike sweatshop conditions for over a decade. Students across the country are demanding that their universities take a stand against sweatshop conditions and increase orders from Alta Gracia.

“I’m joining USAS student activists across the country to fight against sweatshop conditions and calling on my bookstore to increase their orders of Alta Gracia apparel because we can only win when we join together to take on these corporations and also support union workers making our apparel,”  said Joana Leonido, a USAS activist at UC Santa Cruz.

A glimpse into this week…

  • At New York University, students are organizing a coalition to head straight to the campus bookstore and callign on them to source the highest percentage of Alta Gracia apparel of any other college bookstore in the country.
  • At Rutgers University, students will be turning up the heat on the FLA’s Executive Director and demand once and for all that their university disaffiliates from the Nike-dominated FLA.
  • At the University of Texas, the largest licensing school in the entire country, students will show that they’d rather be naked than wear sweatshop clothing and call on UT to finally affiliate with the WRC after a decade of struggle!

For more information and to participate in the USAS Anti-Sweatshop Week of Action, contact email hidden; JavaScript is required