USAS Update: Anti-Sweatshop Groups Take on Broader Issues of Worker's Rights

One of the most exciting examples of activism today, the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) movement has swept college campuses in America and abroad. USAS is self-described as "an international student movement of campuses and individual students fighting for sweatshop free labor conditions and workers' rights". USAS groups have demanded that universities adopt "ethically and legally strong codes of conduct, full public disclosure of company information and truly independent verification systems to ensure that sweatshop conditions are not happening."

USAS is a coalition of individual campus groups waging their own campaigns in pursuit of site-specific, as well as national and international, victories. There are over one hundred member groups of USAS organizing on as many campuses in the United States and in Canada. They work directly and powerfullyrather than calling for boycotts of goods (which would be virtually impossible because of the culpability of so many manufacturers) USAS members ask students to act collectively to bring pressure on school administrators. Their calls to action have been answered. As Nancy Cleeland wrote in April 1999 in the Los Angeles Times, "taking up the cause of low-paid workers who produce the clothing sold in campus stores, students across the nation have staged a wave of sit-ins, teach-ins and rallies unseen since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s."

The USAS platform is very clearly outlined. Students are asking that their university administrations demand from the manufacturers they contract with codes of conduct, requiring: a living wage for all workers, effective protection for the right of workers to organize, focus on womens rights (who make up the majority of workers in sweatshop industries), the full public disclosure of conditions in factories (manufacturers/ licensees will be required to supply participating universities with full lists of production sites), and verification of compliance with the stated standards by individuals or institutions which are certifiably independent of the corporations being monitored.

"When the University of Oregon joined Workers Rights Consortium, Nike decided to pull a $30 million donation that was coming directly from Nike CEO Phil Knight (a U of O graduate)."
Students are also pressuring university administrations either to withdraw from or refrain from joining the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a White House-backed code of conduct that has been chided for allowing monitored corporations to serve on its board. The FLA does not provide for full public disclosure, university control over the monitoring of factories, womens rights, or a living wage. Student groups are supporting the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) instead of the FLA. The WRC was designed cooperatively by student groups, unions, and other sweatshop-monitoring human rights groups and is a system of inspecting conditions in factories that produce apparel for colleges and universities. It requires full disclosure, and supports unannounced inspections of factories by inspectors that are unaffiliated with corporations.

Students have brought demands to each university administration and, where ignored, have responded with peaceful, well-planned and executed protests, rallies, and sit-ins. In almost every case, university administrators have at least agreed to negotiate with student groups. To date, codes of conduct have now been signed at schools that range from Cal Poly (most recently, in May 2000 along with the rest of the University of California system), to Virginia Tech, to Yale University, to the University of Arizona.

Many campus SAS groups are now waiting for decisions in the wake of sit-ins successful in sparking discussion between student activists and college administrations. They are not waiting quietly however. Rachel Miller, an organizer at the United Students Against Sweatshops national headquarters in DC explains that, "many schools have gotten on the WRC in the last few months and think theyre settled, but theres a lot more negotiation to be done. Theres also still the danger that colleges will back out." She cites as an example the University of Oregon, currently dropping out of the WRC. When they joined, Nike decided to pull a $30 million donation that was coming directly from Nike CEO Phil Knight (a U of O graduate). "This shows the kind of power corporations have on campuses" Miller exclaims. Nike has also cut its contacts with the University of Michigan and Brown University, prompting worry on the parts of administrators and activists alike on those campuses too.

USAS work continues with a vengeance however, with between twenty and thirty schools starting new campaigns to get their schools to join the WRC and establish a firm code of conduct with their manufacturing companies. But not only are students continuing work on their own campuses; they are also turning their energy and focus outwards, pointing out that the term sweatshop can apply more broadly to workplaces other than apparel factories and that their sensibilities extend beyond issues that affect them directly.

The Students Against Sweatshops chapter at the University of Kentucky is a good example of a student group who, still fighting to push reforms through on campus, is turning attention outward, supporting the Sanitation Workers in Lexington, KY.

Last year, the University of Kansas SAS was involved in an active anti-FLA, pro-WRC campaign after the University joined the FLA in the spring of 1999 and was unresponsive to student-led appeals to consider joining the WRC instead. The president of the university (which holds an eighty million dollar contract with Nike) told the University of Kansas SAS that he could not even consider the proposition for another three years. The students responded with a 250-person rally which they took to a university administrative building, intending a sit-in. When they found the doors locked and heavily guarded by police, they took the rally to a Board of Trustees meeting in a nearby office tower and took it over. Threatened with arrest, the protesters moved the group to the basement of the building and coordinated a lock-down, demanding negotiation with the president, which was refused. The university then turned up the buildings heat, denied the protesters the food supporters were bringing to the building, and finally arrested them.

Ultimately, the University of Kansas SAS was allowed to speak at a board meeting, and was given positions on the boards committee. The group is waiting now for a decision that will likely come in the next few weeks.

The University of Kentucky students involved with USAS are also members of the Kentucky Student/Youth Progressive Network (KSPN), which has brought together students from the University of Louisville and Transylvania University around campus issues and local labor issues. When I contacted Amanda Lewis, a University of Kansas SAS activist, in November, she reported that she was returning home from a sleepout, coordinated by University of Kentucky and University of Louisville students in front of the Lexington municipal building, in support of the citys solid waste workers. Lewis said, "I know thats not what people think of when they talk about anti-sweat activists, but we are all strongly committed to supporting workers struggles for better wages, better conditions and their dignity."

The fight in Lexington is for the duties of the solid waste workers (of the sanitation department) to be reclassified as "hazardous duty," which would require a pay increase and a retirement option after twenty years, rather than the usual twenty-seven. Lewis cites figures: solid waste employees are ten times more likely to be killed on the job than the average employee; they are four times more likely to be killed than police officers and three times more likely to be killed than fire fighters.

The solid waste workers, and the students now working with them, feel that their city government has not been responding sufficiently. The day after the sleepout, November 15th, according to Lewis, the city offered the solid waste workers a hazardous duty retirement option. The government stipulated, though, that the extra money it would cost to allow workers to retire early would be taken out of their paychecks, without the raise required by a hazardous duty classification. The workers (with the support of students and other community members) are still in negotiations.

Many other campuses are doing work like the students at U of K. To name just a few: NYU is waging a campaign to support UNITE in NYC; Pitzer College in Southern California is waging support campaigns at their college for campus staff; the University of Tennessee and Johns Hopkins University are both involved in living wage campaigns in their areas. This month, students are extending their reach even beyond local issues. Rachel Miller reports, "USAS-ers [notably students at Northwestern University and Loyola in Chicago] are kicking it to the holiday season by supporting Kohl's workers in Nicaragua who have faced a brutal union-busting campaign at the Chentex factory".

United Students Against Sweatshops is the oldest, most issue-specific and perhaps widest-reaching student organization fighting sweatshops now. It serves as an umbrella for affiliated campus groups across the nation, and also lends support and example to other groups doing related and important work. At Princeton University, a Code of Conduct was pushed through by a chapter of Students for Progressive Education and Action (SPEAC). Other schools, like Macalester College and Weslyan University are home to chapters of the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC). At many schools, including Yale University, Cornell University, the University of Vermont, and the University of Wisconsin, USAS is joined by other groups, like the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC), and 180 Movement for Democracy and Education (180 MDE).

To read a Wiretap introduction to the USAS, try United Students Against Sweatshops Fight for Better Labor Conditions.

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