Labor-rights activists canvas Coffman

Andy Skemp

White cotton fabric covered in blood, or what appeared to be blood, was draped on the front terrace of Coffman Union on Wednesday afternoon.
But University graduate student Drew Hempel wasn’t merely trying to create a scene when he splashed a bucket of blood-colored paint onto a white sheet. Hempel and about 10 other members of the University Coalition for Labor Rights set up banners and handed out pamphlets Wednesday, protesting the University’s involvement with apparel companies that manufacture goods in sweatshops.
Many U.S. corporations, including Nike, have been accused of using sweatshops to manufacture their products. While schools like the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan have adopted policies to monitor working conditions of apparel companies they contract with, the University currently has no such policy.
Last spring, University President Mark Yudof asked General Counsel Mark Rotenberg to head a labor practices task force to determine whether the University should adopt a similar policy.
“The goal of the task force is to gather some information, get input from various sources and then provide the president with a set of recommendations,” Rotenberg said.
The 14-member task force, composed of University faculty, staff and students, convened for the first time May 18 and has since met three times.
Though the committee is still far from making a final decision, members have considered joining the Federal Labor Association, a coalition that monitors company working conditions.
Bob Hicks, task force member and assistant director of men’s athletics, said joining the labor association has been considered since several other colleges are members.
Hempel, who is also a member of the task force, said the association consists of members affiliated with companies the organization is supposed to monitor.
“The FLA is being promoted as a solution when … it’s just a public relations cover-up,” he said.
Hempel said he believes the only true way to guarantee sweatshop-free apparel is to use an independent monitoring organization.
Though not all members of the task force have similar agendas, Spanish professor Joanna O’Connell said members are working hard.
Sometime this fall, the task force plans to hold an open forum so students can learn more about the sweatshop issue.
“I think there’s a process of education that has to take place,” O’Connell said. “People have to know what it is about and why they should care.”
As the task force continues to scrutinize its options, upcoming expirations of apparel contracts might present some hard choices. The license for women’s hockey jerseys is one of the contracts about to expire, Hicks said.
Although license renewal will be considered along with labor issues, Hicks said the team’s equipment needs are the first priority.
“Our choices are few. Our teams need jerseys and other equipment,” Hicks said.

Andy Skemp welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3238.