News & Politics

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.

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 Washingtonended 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.

“One of the important insights gained by the student activists is that poor workers are not just victims of corporate abuse; they are active agents trying to find ways to improve their own circumstances,” wrote Michael D. Yates at Monthly Review, in a review of Liza Featherstone's book about USAS, Students Against Sweatshops. Through USAS's organizing, students learned to think of their interests as connected with those of the global working class rather than think of themselves as 1%-ers in training. 

Cheng said, “It's really exciting today because what we're seeing is this renewed movement challenging corporate greed and global austerity. We're seeing a renewed anger and fightback and have been stepping up to meet that challenge, and also encountering a whole new generation of really pissed off and politicized students.”

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.