Demonstrators march for WRC

Travis Reed

As of Monday afternoon, University President Mark Yudof has a sizable addition to his bedtime reading list, a lot of thinking to do and a litany of students, faculty members and community members eagerly awaiting his decision that will formulate the University’s approach to eliminating sweatshop labor.
Three years of controversy and speculation culminated Monday in the issuance of the University’s Licensee Labor Practices Task Force recommendation to Yudof.
The recommendation endorses University affiliation with the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent sweatshop-monitoring organization favored by student sweatshop activists and several national human-rights and organized-labor groups.
A student demonstration punctuated the task force report. More than 40 University students marched from the Washington Avenue Bridge to Morrill Hall, where they cited demands for University sweatshop action.
Though greeted by police on the stairs in front of Morrill Hall, the protest never turned violent, and no arrests were made.
Protesters carried signs with slogans like “Goldie Gopher is not a corporate whore” and “Don’t let corporate greed soil our school colors.”
The demonstrators demanded Yudof expediently approve WRC membership and not join the Fair Labor Association, an alternative monitoring organization denounced by activists as too corporate-friendly. Protesters did not rule out the possibility of future action in the form of sit-ins, lock downs or hunger strikes if demands are not met.
“(The protest) is a good step in building community support so people are aware of what might happen in the coming days if our demands are not met,” said University senior and task force member Rana Kasich. “I’d really like to see the president feel the pressure to join the WRC.”
Kasich said the University protest coincides with similar protests at several Big Ten schools this week, adding that the rest of the conference is counting on University success and leadership to make their work go more smoothly.
The protesters asked to meet with Yudof, but were instead greeted by Executive Vice President and Provost Bob Bruininks.
Bruininks said Yudof was out of town, but he has “every reason to believe (Yudof) will follow the primary recommendation” of the task force.
The protesters said swift action is key because the University has to officially sign on with the WRC by April 1 in order to participate as a member institution in the group’s April 7 founding conference in New York.
The rapidly approaching deadline means Yudof has 13 days to make a formal decision regarding a debate three years in the making.
But Bruininks said Yudof “has a well-deserved reputation for not sitting on recommendations long,” and there is a pervading feeling among administrators in the Big Ten that the FLA is not an adequate monitoring organization.
Though of late the WRC has garnered a wave of support, WRC approval is not unanimous on campus.
Carlson School of Management professor Ian Maitland identifies sweatshops as an area of his expertise. He said the WRC is managed by organized labor interests to keep U.S. companies from outsourcing, or having their goods produced in foreign countries to cut costs.
Maitland said workers with factory jobs are monetarily fortunate in comparison to their compatriots; and, if companies were forced to pay better wages, it would become infeasible to outsource — causing poor countries to lose valuable jobs.
Maitland also criticized the task force for not inviting him to discuss the issue at any of the nine meetings.
“I don’t only think the decision was wrong; I think the process was irregular,” Maitland said.
But activists like Kasich dismiss his claims, saying workers receive such a diminutive portion of net profit that a wage increase would not harm a company’s bottom line dramatically.
“Its about more than just wages. It’s about women’s rights and workers’ rights, and those things would cost almost nothing to improve,” Kasich said. “At some point, we have to draw the line about what’s just.”

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