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As Occupy Wall Street Has Changed Protest Dynamics, Vibrant Groups Like United Students Against Sweatshops Are Back in the Forefront

USAS has been fighting steadily for workers' rights even when the issue wasn't front-page news--and they're helping spearhead a new movement for economic justice.

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It's no surprise that USAS is getting attention again as the Occupy movement brings economic justice to the forefront of America's political consciousness once again. Like much of the anti-globalization fight, the campaign against sweatshops faded from the forefront of the progressive conversation during the Bush years, only to resurface now as Occupy shifts attention to the banks that crashed the economy and the corporations that control our politics.

Yet USAS has been fighting steadily for workers' rights even when the issue wasn't front-page news. Stephen Lerner, veteran organizer with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Justice for Janitors campaign, told AlterNet, “By connecting students to the struggles of campus workers and supporting workers globally who manufacture college apparel, USAS has helped win victories that have improved the lives of tens of thousands of workers while activating, training and radicalizing a new generation of organizers.” He continued, “It is a testimony to USAS's work that so many young labor, political and progressive organizers got their start in USAS.”

The tactics being used now by Occupy are old hat to USAS activists who won campaigns for workers' rights with their willingness to use building occupations and other direct action tactics to gain attention on campuses. Just last month, after multiple university building occupations by USAS-affiliated activists, the University of Washington ended its 25-year relationship with Sodexho, one of the “big three” providers of university food services, over its union-busting and poverty wages.

As the Occupy movement spreads to university campuses around the country, Cheng noted that USAS's long commitment to the idea of the campus as a site of struggle and a nexus of corporate relationships has helped student organizers move beyond university officials to targeting corporate power on campus. She pointed out that the economic crisis, started by Wall Street banks, then led to the slashing of state education budgets, which in turn leads to the tuition hikes that USAS has been helping fight as well as attacks on the rights of the workers on campus.

“It's refreshing to have a conversation, not just about bad Republicans or bad politicians, but specifically about the corporations that crashed the economy, that are helping create this right-wing legislation and funding these right-wing candidates,” Cheng said.

While planning for the national conference and working on student issues with Occupy, USAS is currently focusing on a campaign against the Dallas Cowboys, who have created a spinoff company called Silver Star Merchandising to try to get in on the campus apparel and logo gear business. “Because they're the new kids on the block they have no respect for workers rights and have sort of stated that publicly,” Cheng said. But so far, a contract with The Ohio State University has been stalled by protests organized by the USAS affiliate, and the struggle has been featured on ESPN.com and in the New York Times.

The El Salvador factories used by the Cowboys' company has been accused of threatening union organizers, forcing workers to work long overtime hours, and providing contaminated water for workers to drink—this after an Indonesian factory they used shut down suddenly, leaving its employees owed a collective $3 million in severance pay.

Remes pointed out one of the strengths of USAS is that it emphasizes solidarity, with the student activists standing with sweatshop workers rather than speaking for them. The organization took its motto from aboriginal activist Lilla Watson, who said: "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."  The focus on solidarity rather than charity presents a different model that perhaps prefigured the “We Are the 99%” rallying cry of Occupy Wall Street.