Workshop promotes nonviolent protesting

by Travis Reed

NEW YORK CITY — Up a diminutive, creaky staircase, through the last door on the second floor of the Judson House in Greenwich Village, exists a cramped, cluttered one-room office with little more than a computer, a bookshelf and an oversized file cabinet.
For now, this cozy space is the only tangible sign of the Worker Rights Consortium, a student activist-initiated group designed to monitor and make public the working conditions in factories that produce university apparel.
Though it might not appear so from the outside, within this inauspicious structure, the WRC is waging a war against some of the biggest multinational corporations in the world.
The group took its first step toward actual factory monitoring Friday with the completion of its inaugural meeting, in which administrators and students from the 44 WRC member schools and representatives from organized labor and religious groups crammed into the sanctuary of Judson Church near the New York University campus.
The University of Minnesota sent six representatives to the meeting, including Licensee Labor Practices Task Force members Mark Rotenberg, Bob Hicks, George French, Rana Kasich and one representative apiece from the Minnesota Student Association and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.
For many administrators, the conference was an opportunity to become acquainted with the group and air concerns about the direction of the organization.
University General Counsel Rotenberg presented four areas of concern that President Mark Yudof outlined in a letter to the WRC, including University representation, the extent to which the group needs to engage corporations, the WRC’s fiscal responsibility and the introduction of a system of rewards for manufacturers who receive good reports.
Because most of the administrators at the meeting represented schools where WRC membership was a hard-fought victory for student activists, many participants feared the proceedings would be tainted by the same tension that ultimately brought the schools to the bargaining table.
“I was surprised by the amount of people who wanted to move it forward,” said Maria Roeper, the only paid full-time WRC employee.
Roeper said administrators approached concerns in a progressive manner by focusing on solutions, and not the problems themselves.
The meeting began on a positive note for the WRC when California congressman George Miller, a WRC advisory board member, announced the membership of the entire California system. The announcement boosted WRC membership by one-third.
But in many ways, the inaugural meeting might have put more items on the consortium’s to-do list than it actually resolved.
Wading through administrative issues, the caucus decided on the formation of five working groups, each of which will discuss options within its sphere of policy and draft proposals for the governing board.
Four of the working groups proposed in advance by the WRC advisory council were to address issues of staffing, planning for the WRC information center, factory disclosure information and networking with local labor groups. The fifth group, commissioned to formulate a discussion of the organization’s bylaws, came out of conference discourse.
The groups will work on proposals for the initial governing board meeting scheduled for June.
The meeting was supposed to mark the announcement of the composition of the governing board itself, a 12-member body consisting of six representatives appointed by labor advocates on the advisory board, three representatives from United Students Against Sweatshops and three members representing university administration.
But administrative representatives at the meeting pulled the plug on the governing board’s inauguration party, because they say more deliberation is needed before choosing delegates.
Roeper said the administrators agreed on a process for choosing delegates and will maintain communication after the meeting to choose representatives.
Rotenberg said administrative attendees agreed to meet in Chicago within the next 60 days to further discuss prospective governing-board candidates.
Many administrators at the meeting were also concerned that universities might not have enough executive power because they lay claim to only three seats on the governing board.
Student representatives like Kasich said universities will also be represented by the three student governing board members, which means universities and labor activists will have six seats apiece.
Though nearly all participants were positive about the future of the organization, there was a consensus among most involved that much work remains for the consortium.
Just how much work, however, depends on who’s at the podium. Corporate representatives and officials from the Fair Labor Association, an opposing labor-monitoring group, say no amount of work can make the WRC effective because of its general disposition toward transparency factory monitoring.
WRC bylaws fundamentally oppose corporate involvement on the group’s governing board. As a result, companies like Nike have threatened to sever university ties if schools try to impose WRC standards in contract renegotiation.
Corporations are more supportive of the FLA, where they have a seat on the governing board.
They criticize the WRC for its relative newness and as-of-yet undefined organizational structure.
But the FLA is no established stalwart in the labor movement, either. Executive Director Sam Brown says the organization didn’t even have an office until two weeks ago, despite the body’s existence since June.
In that sense, WRC officials are confident they can successfully play catch up.
But for now, Roeper says the WRC is still a long way from entering factories and making public the working standards used to produce products bearing university-licensed insignias in underdeveloped nations.
Chief among WRC concerns is how the organization can involve local labor groups in the underdeveloped nations, a demographic that might be key to their prospective success, because the group is working entirely against the will of the corporate-factory owners.
That networking strategy is one of many issues the WRC will be kneading out in the coming months.
But for now, premeeting jitters can be put to rest for many administrators who were concerned about WRC legitimacy.
“It was a useful and interesting meeting,” Rotenberg said. “They looked carefully at all the universities’ concerns, and they were eager to make sure the university representatives were welcome and had an opportunity to express themselves.”

Travis Reed covers environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3232.