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Student activists raise signs over sweatshops
> > Mirroring activity on campuses across the nation, a group of College students is calling for the University to join a new sweatshop-monitoring coalition. Citing tradition, the University declines.

image: Campus NewsFor several years now, student activists nationwide have pushed to find out whether their colleges' sweatshirts, shorts, caps, and other official apparel are made in overseas sweatshops. Their efforts--fueled by the same skepticism of international trade practices on display at recent protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C.--received an added boost this spring with the establishment of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a national organization that plans to monitor conditions at U.S. and overseas factories where college merchandise is produced.

image: The issue of sweatshop labor
The issue of sweatshop labor has galvanized the nation's college students.

The question of whether to join the WRC has sparked debate on campuses across the country. After the University of Oregon joined the WRC in response to student demands, Nike chairman and CEO Philip H. Knight backed out of a planned $30 million gift to help renovate the school's athletic stadium. Protests or sit-ins have been held on other campuses, among them the University of Iowa, Tulane, and Yale. Six students at Purdue began a hunger strike on March 27 that ended ten days later when school administrators agreed to accept provisional membership in one or more sweatshop-monitoring groups.

At Chicago, the Student Government and the Anti-Sweatshop Coalition (ASC), which represents 16 recognized student organizations and their 200 members, requested in March that the University join the WRC. After consulting with the Board of Trustees and the Committee of the Council of the University Senate, University administrators decided against joining the consortium. In a March 30 letter to SG and ASC leaders, Arthur Sussman, the University's general counsel and vice president for administration, wrote that the decision was based on "our assessment of the material we have received, our present licensing program, and the traditions of the University."

Sportswear bearing the University name and logo, Sussman explained, is sold primarily at the two locations of the University Bookstore managed by Barnes & Noble. The chain, he said, requires its clothing vendors to provide a statement that all merchandise sold at any Barnes & Noble location is manufactured only in facilities that comply with the standards of the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The FLA--to which neither Barnes & Noble nor the University belongs--was formed in 1996 as part of a White House-backed effort to get businesses and labor and human-rights groups to work together. The FLA is affiliated with more than 130 colleges and universities and--unlike the WRC--with several major clothing manufacturers, including Nike, Adidas-Salomon, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Reebok International. Its principles, though, are similar to those of the WRC and generally ask companies to ensure that their factories meet fair labor practices and provide safe and healthy working conditions.

"To our knowledge no apparel items licensed by the University are being made under conditions that do not meet these principles," Sussman wrote. Chicago's ASC leaders have been urging University administrators for nearly three years to adopt a formal code of conduct for licensing agreements. Holding rallies and circulating petitions, the ASC activists--a core group of about 20, mostly College, students--have embraced the fledgling WRC as the solution to their concerns that the U of C's current system cannot guarantee that merchandise bearing its name and logo is made under fair labor standards.

ASC leader Rebecca Stark, a second-year, explains that as students, "we are directly attached to the University because our financial support goes to the U of C in the form of tuition, revenue from books and T-shirts, and all sorts of other things. If we don't like the way our university does business, we have a right to question it and to ask for change."

image: Some students want the University to join the WRC
Some students want the University to join the Worker Rights Consortium

The 51 schools that had joined the New York-based WRC as of May 10-including Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois--will require their licensees to provide workers with a living wage, the right to organize, and safe conditions. Member schools must also commit to full public disclosure of factory locations and conditions and agree to help fund the consortium. Institutions that collect royalties from a licensing program are expected to contribute initial dues of 1 percent of their previous year's licensing revenues, up to $50,000; others contribute annual dues of $1,000.

It's the WRC's apparent intention to move beyond a monitoring function to an advocacy role--supporting particular social, political, and environmental positions--that troubles the University administration and faculty, explained Sussman. He noted the University's stance, outlined by the faculty in the 1967 Kalven Committee Report on the University's Role in Political and Social Action: "A university....is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby."

Although the report does make exceptions for practices "'so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences,'" Sussman wrote, "we do not believe this to be the situation with our licensing program. This statement is not a judgment on the importance of the need for humane labor conditions in work settings, but rather recognition that all providers of apparel under University licenses already have pledged to honor a set of demanding workplace principles, and that to join with other institutions to support a 'proper' code of corporate behavior would be inconsistent with the Kalven Report."

At the same time, Sussman told the students, there is strong feeling that "the issues you have raised about labor and environmental standards in overseas factories, the concept of the 'living wage,' and their impact on matters of the global economy and national public policy should be rigorously examined across the University." To that end, Michelle Obama, associate dean of student services and director of the University Community Service Center, and Alison Boden, dean of Rockefeller Chapel and resident master of Broadview Hall, were asked to arrange educational forums with students on ASC concerns. Two lectures on sweatshops, globalization, and universities took place in May at Ida Noyes Hall.

While ASC leaders say they are pleased by the opportunity to further campus discussion, they still take issue with the school's reliance on Barnes & Nobles's assurances as a sufficient check on sweatshop activity, arguing that the WRC is set up to play the role of an independent, objective watchdog.

"Meeting and discussing has not proven to be enough to spur change," says second-year and ASC leader Cara Kuball. "We must foster a louder student voice on campus and make our presence known. The University has responded that we don't know that these violations exist in factories manufacturing U of C apparel. This is true. It is even more reason to find out whether violations are occurring and to end or prevent these violations."
--C.S.


  JUNE 2000
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