The Success of Students Against Sweatshops

News & Politics

Since 1998, the United Students Against Sweatshops movement has battled behemoths from Nike to the Gap to Clinton's Fair Labor Association. They are working to make the world safer for garment workers and conscientious buyers everywhere. Four years later, the group's story has made its way to America's independent, anarchist, and radical bookstores (and even to Barnes and Noble) in the new book "Students Against Sweatshops". The book, which partners USAS with Nation correspondent and veteran activist Liza Featherstone, is part history, part propaganda and all careful critical analysis of how students are fighting corrupt corporatism and even (gasp!) capitalism. With the detail of a how-to manual and the pace of a thriller, Featherstone uses the voices of her protagonists to lift "Students Against Sweatshops" from the level of dry documentary into a class of its own. WireTap talked with her over email.

WireTap: Why did you write "Student Against Sweatshops"?

LF: I had been writing about youth activism, and about labor issues, for a number of years. So when the Nation magazine asked me to start writing about anti-sweatshop and related campus campaigns, I was delighted. USAS had already begun work on a book; Colin Robinson (then-publisher of Verso) saw my Nation work and suggested we collaborate. Since USAS and I already had a friendly relationship, we agreed.

Do you have a personal history of activism?

Yes. I started as an anti-nuclear activist early in college (this was the late 1980s), and then got involved with the campus PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) which worked mostly on environmental issues. I still think all those issues are extremely important (maybe now more than ever), but I became a lot more interested in how human beings can figure out how to live together on this planet -- in gender, racial and economic terms. [I also became interested] in confronting the destructive power of capital, something that wasn't much talked about at that point, even by most progressive activists.

I became pretty active in feminist and "diversity" (early 1990s buzzword) work on campus, as well as protesting the Gulf War, and moves by the university to arm campus security guards with guns, which were strenuously resisted by a great coalition of students of color, anti-authoritarian hippies and peaceniks. I was also very involved in the administration of our student housing cooperatives -- they were the best places to find people interested in more egalitarian forms of economic organization.

In "SAS", you mention that if predominantly white, middle class activists manage to build coalitions with minority and lower class groups then "shit will really go down." However, you don't seem confident that this will occur. What can activists do to build such bridges and to broaden the movement as a whole?

I think this happens when privileged activists are willing to actively support the work of activists who have less power. For example, middle-class white people have been working in solidarity with immigrants who are fighting the government's racist crackdown, which includes detentions, privacy violations and restricted access to education.

I have sometimes heard the anti-corporate/anti-globalization movement referred to as a movement for global democracy. What is the difference among these terms, and which is the most useful?

Good question! I ask myself this question a lot, and I'm not sure. As my colleague, the left economic journalist Doug Henwood, is always pointing out, "anti-globalization" is a term that should probably be retired. We're always having to clarify that we're not against all kinds of globalization, just the capitalist, or corporate kind. There are a lot of good things about having an interconnected global economy -- we should probably be fighting to socialize it rather than rejecting it. "Anti-corporate" is better, but isn't quite precise enough because not all the problems that concern our movement are caused by corporations; corporations are just one of many ways that the rich, under capitalism, maintain power. I like the "movement for global democracy," I think it's very accurate, but I worry that to people who aren't in the activist loop, it's not clear enough that we're talking about our economic system. I do kind of like the term "global economic justice movement."

USAS Organizer Molly McGrath Speaks Out in "Students Against Sweatshops"
"I've seen USAS take many different forms. We've been a mass of people affiliated only by conference calls that stretched on for hours. We've been U-locked, back-to-back, in the chancellor's office, during an occupation to secure our university's membership in the Worker's Rights Consortium. We've been in Washington DC, at the protests of the IMF and World Bank, desperately trying to find some meaning in the sudden plethora of massive, international protests. And we've been in a series of rather unorganized committees, which is probably where most of the work in USAS is actually accomplished. All of these forms of organization are legitimate, but only if we maintain a strong commitment to internal democracy."

Why are anti-corporate activists afraid of calling themselves anti-capitalists?

This is only true in the United States. Elsewhere it's recognized as an anti-capitalist movement. In the United States, though, if you say you're against capitalism, people think you're one of those weirdos who sell newspapers at protests. A lot of Americans, especially older people who grew up during the Cold War, are afraid to criticize capitalism because we've always been taught to equate it with democracy. Faith in capitalism is so important to American culture that when you criticize it you really risk repression, or much worse, total invisibility. Hence all these euphemisms.

You mention that if many activists look as though they shop at the Gap (a company notorious for its use of sweatshop labor), it may be because they do. What are the origins of contradictions like this one, and how do they play out in the anti-corporate movement?

Well, the anti-sweatshop movement involves a lot of students who are a bit more culturally (though not necessarily politically) mainstream than some of the pierced, hooded kids you see at IMF/World Bank demonstrations. You have to be pretty committed to looking and acting conspicuously "alternative" to avoid shopping at stores like the Gap; a movement that required that of its members would be pretty small. But the movement also attracts lots of people who clearly don't shop at the Gap and would be very offended at the suggestion that they did. Some of the more anarchist types are very critical of activists who don't lead an alternative, anti-capitalist lifestyle (growing their own food, composting, making their own clothes, etc.). Others say that kind of self-sufficient life isn't really conducive to building a movement because it's very isolating, and takes up a lot of time.

Frequently, today's student activists fail to obtain widespread public attention (let alone support) even from people who may be sympathetic to their cause. What is the role of PR in student activism, and how could it be used more effectively?

It has a lot to do with inexperience in manipulating the media, and also sometimes a disdain for the media (the latter probably derives from the anti-corporate politics). One student group had made a film about their campus living wage campaign. It was narrated by the actor Ben Affleck, and on one of their posters, they had completely forgotten to mention this fact, even though it would clearly draw more people. People become activists in part by rejecting the mainstream, and sometimes are reluctant to put themselves back into the mainstream mindset. But that's what you have to do to reach the public. Besides, it can be fun.

Why do you think that contemporary activism is less likely to be destroyed by structural and ideological disagreement than that of the 60s? How has activism evolved since that era?

I think this generation of activists has done a much better job of creating structures, organizations and cultures that respect people. Their processes are democratic and anti-hierarchical, everyone is endlessly consulted, and for the most part, I've been so amazed at how polite people are too each other. Of course ugliness breaks out now and then, but mostly it's pretty well contained. I was at a meeting of mostly veteran, older activists a few weeks ago and just couldn't believe how rude, insulting and disrespectful they were to each other -- how mean they were in disagreements, how seldom someone said "thanks a lot" or "that's a really good idea." These sound like little things, but they fundamentally affect the sustainability of our organizations.

No Puede Ser la Vida

How has September 11 affected student activism?

It briefly demoralized a lot of people, especially in the anti-sweatshop movement because it looked like it was going to be hard to win victories for workers in face of worldwide recession. But it did give rise to a peace activism on hundreds of campuses, which is closely linked to the global economic justice movement and to the fight for immigrant rights. In general it was harder to be optimistic about the world after September 11, and that's always bad for student activism (the 1960s, like the 1990s, was a time of economic prosperity). But I think people are recovering.

What sort of future is in store for United Students Against Sweatshops and the anti-corporate movement?

USAS is figuring out how to build on their victories and continue to win concrete improvements in garment factory conditions. They've been very successful in building institutions, and as they get more involved in that, it may be a challenge, on their limited resources, to continue to build the movement. But we'll see -- I have a lot of confidence in them. As for the larger anti-corporate movement, I think it's really promising and will continue to grow. The recent mass demonstrations have showed that people aren't cowed by repression or flag-fever. I also think a growing number of people are disgusted by Enron-like antics and by the failures of privatization of public schools, water, and electricity. I'm also really excited to see how many people not only participate in these big protests but, like USAS, work to fight the power of capital in their own communities. The future depends on the movement's ability to appeal to many more sectors of the public without compromising its radicalism.

Miriam Markowitz's mom gave her a Gap leather jacket for her twentieth birthday.

Related Links:
"Sunshine on Sweatshops" by Jenny Stepp of The Nation

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