Cover Story: Students Ready for a Semester of Struggle

Sweatshops to be the big issue on America's campuses this fall

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As summer vacation quickly turns to fall, the average college student's mind turns to shopping. Some are picking out trendy new clothes, dorm room posters or the perfect beer stein.

But others, a significant number of others, are buying batteries for their bullhorns and ink for their printing presses, getting ready to protest their lungs out when the semester starts.

The most energetic student movement of the 1990s, the protest against exploitative foreign sweatshops, will be returning to campuses this fall with more vigor, enthusiasm and resources than ever before. At issue is the widespread practice of universities profiting off the sale of clothing and accessories that are produced in sweatshops overseas.

While student activists won significant victories against this practice last year, they remain unsatisfied with many of their schools' policies. So instead of letting the sweatshop issue go the way of many campus crusades — which fade from student consciousness during summer vacation or dissipate when student leaders graduate — "no-sweat" organizers have taken steps to ensure that their agenda will stay in the forefront of students' minds.

Most visibly, a loose coalition of no-sweat campus groups called United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has established a national office in Washington, D.C.

"The national headquarters will be a central place for no-sweat activists to get information and support," says Maria Roeper, a veteran USAS organizer and a senior at Haverford (Pa.) College. "The movement has gotten too big and too complex to move forward without it."

When it opens in September, the USAS office will be comparatively small — employing only one full-time staffer — but its responsibilities will be overwhelming.

Along with supporting hundreds of no-sweat groups across the country, the office will coordinate "national days of action," link student activists with other community activists and make outreaches to campuses without organized no-sweat campaigns. The USAS will also be leading fact-finding expeditions to Latin America — expeditions in which students will infiltrate factories, meet with garment workers and expose sweatshop conditions to the international community.

"We were brainstorming recently about all the jobs the national office will be responsible for," Roeper says. "It'll be at least three times what any one person could handle. We haven't even opened the office, and we need to hire more staff!"

Those myriad responsibilities result from the spectacular growth of the campus no-sweat movement during the last two years. The crusade first gained visibility in 1997, when Duke University students pressured administrators to adopt a "code of conduct" that prohibited Duke from contracting with factories that violated labor laws or human rights. The code of conduct model quickly caught on with student groups at other universities, leading to sit-ins, rallies and marches at dozens of campuses.

The protests reached a climax last spring, with hundreds of student groups calling on their administrators to adopt stringent codes. When the USAS called its second annual meeting in July, more than 200 no-sweat organizers showed up — more than quadruple the number that attended in 1998.

Even though the movement has come a long way, it now faces a daunting and ironic foe: the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a White House-sponsored initiative ostensibly designed to combat sweatshop labor. In theory, the FLA would investigate apparel-producing factories overseas and hold them to an industry-wide code of conduct. But student activists claim the FLA is little more than a sweatshop-protecting public relations stunt.

"The FLA is nothing but a smokescreen for hiding unjust labor practices," says Lyndsey Norman, another long-time USAS activist. "It lacks some of the most important clauses any code of conduct needs: full public disclosure of factory locations, guarantees to pay a living wage and independent monitoring."

Those three criteria — public disclosure, living wage guarantees and independent monitoring — have become the USAS's rallying cry. Without disclosing factory locations, apparel companies can guard their sweatshops in secrecy, hiding deplorable work or living conditions from the rest of the world. Without living wage guarantees, factories will, at best, pay only the "prevailing wage" of the country in which they are located — usually not enough to adequately house and feed workers. And without independent monitoring, companies can hire friendly firms to investigate factory conditions — with the understanding that the factory will get a passing grade.

"The FLA would only call for 5-to-10 percent of a company's factories to be visited," says Lauren Stephens-Davidowitz, a Yale freshman who joined the USAS while still in high school. "After those few visits, which would be carefully planned for, the company would get a stamp of approval. That's not real monitoring, not by a long shot."

Regardless of these student objections, more than 100 universities have joined the FLA, adding their names beside corporate giants such as Nike, Liz Claiborne and Reebok. Many university administrators defend the FLA as a meaningful way to stop sweatshop abuses.

"It makes sense to work within the FLA framework at this point to achieve fair labor conditions," Duke University President Nannerl Keohane told a Scripps Howard reporter.

While some administrators agree that the FLA establishes "a floor, not a ceiling" of acceptable factory conditions, many simply embrace the White House-backed plan as is. USAS's Roeper believes that such university acceptance is the result of a concerted FLA recruitment effort.

"The FLA is courting universities for legitimacy," she says. "By saying, 'We have 100 universities endorsing us,' the FLA gains a lot of credibility. Meanwhile, university administrators just don't want to deal with the sweatshop issue anymore; it's bad publicity, it's hard work, it's inconvenient. So joining the FLA seems like a win-win situation — except that it won't do anything to improve workers' lives."

To expose the inadequacies of the FLA, student activists have already made some investigations of their own into Latin American sweatshops. Last March, the USAS teamed up with the National Labor Committee (NLC), another anti-sweatshop group, to send a delegation of students to an FLA-monitored Liz Claiborne factory in El Salvador. A spokesman from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm hired by the FLA to audit the factory, had assured students that conditions in the factory "were just fine." But when students arrived, they found egregious violations of human and labor rights, including sub-poverty wages, 15-hour workdays (with only two bathroom breaks permitted), daily full-body searches and workers fired for even talking about unionizing.

Upon their return, the students penned an open letter to Liz Claiborne.

"In our eyes," the students wrote, "the abuses we witnessed (in your factories) discredit not only your firm, but also the monitoring efforts of the FLA."

After a similar fact-finding trip to Honduras last summer, USAS activists recorded their impressions of other FLA-approved factories in a report called Behind Closed Doors. Wrote one student: "We saw hundreds of workers, the majority young girls, entering a factory. A security guard armed with a huge rifle paced back and forth in front of the gates, occasionally telling the workers to hurry. Disgusted, we watched hundreds of people walking hypnotically into these monstrous buildings, enclosed by barbed-wire fences and 20-foot concrete walls, on a beautiful Sunday morning. It's supposed to be their only day off."

"Clearly, the corporate monitors are inadequate," says NLC Executive Director Charlie Kernaghan. "And now that student activists are seeing for themselves, with their own eyes, the deplorable conditions that the monitors ignore, they're more likely than ever to resist the FLA."

According to Kernaghan, who has been active in human and labor rights organizing for decades, student pressure has become the most powerful force in the no-sweat campaign.

"In terms of the sweatshop movement, 1999 is the year of the student," he says. "They've made more progress than any labor organizations, any religious organizations or any human rights groups. If anyone can rock the FLA, it's students."

And rock they will. Though specific protests haven't yet been planned, no-sweat organizers across the country are ready to mobilize at a moment's notice.

"The atmosphere is changing on college campuses," warns Norman. "If our universities don't switch course and make genuine responses to student demands, you're going to see a lot of action this fall."

So if you're headed back onto campus, don't forget your leaflets, banners and spray paint. For the first time in many years, they might be more useful than that stein.

Tate Hausman writes for Alternet, the alternative newsweeklies' wire service.

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