U’s consideration of FLA concerns students

by Travis Reed

It was a tough Tuesday for the Fair Labor Association.
In Philadelphia, 30 University of Pennsylvania students ended an eight-day sit-in at a campus administration building after school President Judith Rodin officially withdrew the university’s membership with the controversial labor rights monitoring group.
In Ohio, Oberlin College strengthened the anti-FLA movement by joining the Workers’ Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization that grew from opposition to the FLA.
And in Minneapolis, about 20 students expressed concern at an open forum sponsored by the University’s Fair Labor Task Force about the University’s consideration of FLA membership. Students on the task force also managed to collect more than 400 signatures on a petition against joining the FLA.
These events reflect a growing national movement opposing the FLA, an organization critics denounce as “corporate whitewashed” and “toothless.”
More than 130 colleges and universities nationwide are members of the FLA, which was formed in 1998 from a combination of labor groups, corporations, trade unions and human rights groups.
However, many nongovernmental organizations — including the AFL-CIO — left the organization, citing concerns that it caters too heavily to corporate interests. Six of the FLA’s 14 directors represent corporations the organization is supposed to monitor.
Now, increasing numbers of students are attempting to pull out of the group and join the recently formed Workers’ Rights Consortium. Championed by the United Students Against Sweatshops, the WRC is a national organization that emphasizes using direct resources such as workers’ testimony to assess the fairness and safety of factory working conditions.
The University has yet to join a labor monitoring organization, but students were told to expect action soon. Members of the University Fair Labor Task Force will recommend to President Mark Yudof within the next 45 days how to ensure that the almost 300 companies licensed to manufacture apparel and merchandise bearing the University insignia do not exploit sweatshop labor.
Task force history
This issue of monitoring sweatshop labor was placed in President Yudof’s lap in 1997 when he took office.
Sweatshop labor concerns were thrust into the public spotlight in 1996 after a line of clothing produced by talk-show host Kathy Lee Gifford was exposed for exploiting sweatshop labor.
To address public concerns, the Clinton Administration appointed a task force charged with creating an organization that would monitor working conditions in factories where sweatshop labor was suspected.
Two years later, the FLA was created in a compromise between corporations and the human rights organizations. The FLA encouraged additional companies and entities to sign on, and FLA membership soon became ubiquitous for universities nationwide.
At about the same time, students on the Twin Cities campus began examining licensing issues at the local level.
The growing concern prompted the appointment in 1998 of the University Fair Labor Task Force, a 13-member group pieced together with three student members to prescribe the best option for University action.
So far, the committee has met only a handful of times.
The forum marked the first official opportunity for students not serving on the task force to weigh in on the issue.
In November, the Minnesota Student Association passed a resolution by a more than 2-to-1 margin to discredit FLA membership and urge the task force to seriously consider alternative monitoring organizations.
But the voice of FLA opposition was muffled when the measure was vetoed by MSA President Ben Bowman, who said the resolution “might steer (MSA) down a track we don’t want to go down.” A later motion to overturn Bowman’s veto failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority.
Voices of disconcert
Students in the Cowles auditorium had plenty of input, all of which denounced the FLA and suggested the University join the WRC, whose membership consists of four small colleges. Some audience members staunchly criticized the University’s task force. Many expressed disdain for the University taking such a long time to develop a plan to address sweatshop labor.
Prior to the forum, task force member Drew Hempel passed out information about the WRC and copies of letters to the task force scripted by such groups as the Labor Education Service and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The letter stated that those groups opposed University membership in the FLA.
Hempel said the letters were left out of the agenda by administrators on the task force.
University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg maintained that at no time was information barred from reaching the task force.
Despite task force criticism, most students at the forum had one basic message: “Do not join the FLA.”
“If we choose to join the Fair Labor Association, what we basically do is put the swine in charge of the crops,” said College of Liberal Arts senior Pete Johnson. “In the same way you don’t let the goats tend the cabbage, you don’t let Nike, Reebok and Kathy Lee Gifford, of all people, to be put in charge of monitoring their compliance with sweatshops.”
Several states away, Johnson’s sentiments were echoed by Pennsylvania students, happy to have helped wean their school from the FLA’s membership.
“There’s no reason for universities to be floundering on the issue,” said Anna Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania freshman. “As time goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that the FLA doesn’t uphold workers’ rights. It looks bad for universities to be a part of.”

Travis Reed welcomes comments at [email protected] andMax Rust welcomes comments at [email protected].