U activists fight for new sweatshop monitoring system

by Travis Reed

If this week’s events at three Big Ten institutions are any indication, University sweatshop activists might soon win their battle to ensure the school’s apparel is manufactured in humane working conditions.
Student protests at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison succeeded in prodding administrators, along with University of Indiana officials, to conditionally join the Workers’ Rights Consortium, a labor-monitoring organization designed to prevent human-rights abuses in apparel factories.
For an organization whose critics cited its relative newness and subsequently low membership figures as flaws, the addition of three large universities — a 60 percent jump — is expected to give the WRC a boost in credibility.
The inclusion of three of the University of Minnesota’s Big Ten neighbors has caught the eye of some faculty members on the University’s Fair Labor Task Force, a student-faculty group assembled to examine the issue and forward a recommendation to University President Mark Yudof.
“When the task force was meeting last summer, there was very little information,” said George French, a University of Minnesota-Morris music professor and member of the University’s Fair Labor Task Force, in reference to the WRC. “It seems that they’ve become much better organized over the last few months.”
To lobby for WRC membership, students at both UW-Madison and the University of Michigan took up residence in their presidents’ offices.
The Michigan students took protests a step further, providing Web-cam coverage of their sit-in and putting their dean’s office up for sale on the Internet auction site eBay. Bids for the office started at $3.60 because the students say they wanted the price to reflect the wages of workers producing the university’s apparel.
Though University of Minnesota students’ protests have not been as radical, the University’s pro-WRC movement might be gathering steam.
At the Fair Labor Task Force’s forum last week, several students voiced pro-WRC sentiment and criticized the Fair Labor Association, an alternative sweatshop-monitoring task force accused of being managed by corporate interests. Task force member and University graduate student Drew Hempel collected more than 400 signatures echoing the students’ concerns.
“Before, the administrators could use the line that doing something was better than doing nothing at all,” said University senior and task force member Rana Kasich. “Now we have an organization that will be effective. The administration of every school has no excuse to join (the FLA) at all.”

Travis Reed covers environment and transportation and welcomes comments at tree[email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3235.