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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.

In Madison, Wisconsin nearly a year ago, the first sparks of a movement against austerity and in support of worker power were lit. For many, it was the rebirth of something that seemed dead in the U.S.--a conversation about the hits working people have taken over the past few decades, a discussion not just about the decline of unions but about a the rise of a corporate-controlled economic agenda that relies on a desperate labor force and constant downward pressure on wages and benefits.

At the heart of the fight in Madison -- the occupation of the state capitol and the sustained campaigns against governor Scott Walker and his cronies in the legislature -- were teachers and students, many from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. One of the groups leading the charge was the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC), an affiliate of United Students Against Sweatshops. Decrying Walker's attempt to turn Wisconsin into a “sweatshop state,” the students planned actions and helped organize solidarity protests around the country.

This year, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) will return to Madison for their fifteenth anniversary conference, marking the anniversary of the capitol occupation on February 17th with a gathering of current and former organizers and a celebration of the sustained movement for student and worker power on and off campus. Teresa Cheng, a national organizer with USAS, told AlterNet, “This conference is really our chance to come together to coordinate nationally, how we can actually transform our economy, which in a way sets the economic agenda for the entire world.”

Born out of the anti-globalization movement in the mid-1990s, USAS began with college campaigns in places like the University of Wisconsin at Madison (Cheng said that USAS jokingly calls the SLAC “USAS Local #1”) organizing in support of workers on campuses, and spread to over 150 campus affiliates around the country. As manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas and workers in the US began to feel the squeeze, organizers realized that they had to move beyond a local or even a US-based analysis and really look at global capitalism and find ways to bring the fight to the multinational corporations that were consolidating their hold on politics as well as business.

“We had to globalize our movement to have an impact on these corporations who were spearheading the offshoring of jobs,” Cheng said.

Jacob Remes, assistant professor of public affairs and history at SUNY Empire State College and former Yale Students Against Sweatshops activist, told AlterNet, “USAS trained a generation of activists to think about the connections between international human rights, international development, and American labor, and to think about it in a really thoughtful and nuanced way.”

From underpaid food service and custodial workers on college campuses to tuition hikes, from struggles against the apparel manufacturers who provide college-logo clothing to support for groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers fighting awful working conditions for tomato pickers and other food-industry workers, USAS called for college students to think beyond the relatively comfortable conditions of their own lives and really consider the people whose labor helps them live in that comfort.

“I think USAS in its original iteration was really good at making people think about their own roles as consumers and as students,” Remes said.

One of the major accomplishments of USAS—and one of the anniversaries being celebrated in Madison this year—was the founding ten years ago of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor monitoring organization that investigates and reports on working conditions in factories worldwide. Cheng pointed out that it's the only sweatshop monitor that doesn't take any corporate money, and Remes noted that it's been very quietly successful. Over 180 colleges and universities are affiliated with the WRC, which means that they have adopted a code of conduct for manufacturing of university apparel and logo products and allow the WRC to investigate all factories involved in that manufacturing.