Stop Sweatshops-Linking Workers' Struggles

— Marion Traub-Werner

NIKE MADE A mistake when it aggressively entered the college market through lucrative licensing contracts and exclusive promotions deals.  In hindsight, it amazes me that the company never considered the potential for scandal when it linked itself to institutions that purport to be moral leaders.

Nike established a business relationship to institutions that employ progressive faculty and are attended by a growing number of socially conscious students who are, by and large, the same age as Nike's offshore workforce.  But the universities did not consider the ethical implications either.  Whereas most corporations make no apologies for functioning in a moral vacuum, such a stance on the part of universities would undermine their role in our society.  Clearly, both Nike and universities believed that enough money pumped into image promotion would obscure the reality.

Students proved them wrong.  The reality behind the image was more powerful than the corporate smoke and mirrors: girls and women aged 14-24 working fourteen-hour days making our clothes for little compensation.  On over a hundred campuses in the last two years, students have begun to push for changes that would narrow the quantum economic gap between our peers in the developing world and ourselves.  Focusing on university-licensed products, students have pushed for full public disclosure of factory sites and the adoption of a code of conduct.

I attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It adopted such a code, and the requirement of public disclosure, after a two-year campaign and a four-day sit-in.  Our group at UNC and those at many other universities are now at a critical junction.

How do we keep our movement going after the adoption of a code?  How do we convert a code of conduct into real change in the apparel industry?  How do we work in solidarity with workers in a way that is truly cooperative and transcends patterns of paternalism that play out in the corporate and the development sectors?

"Question the Contract"

The student anti-sweatshop movement in Chapel Hill began in the fall of 1997 when the university signed an exclusive $11 million promotion contract with Nike. We began our campaign with the less-than-radical suggestion/slogan "Question the Contract." We plastered campus with flyers detailing statistics comparing workers' wages and celebrity pay-offs for a Nike endorsement.  The two central themes of the campaign-corporatization of the university and worker rights-attracted different crowds.  Faculty seemed more moved by the former and students by the latter.  Three professors co-taught a seminar that examined both issues and used Nike as a test case.

Phil Knight, Nike's CEO, made a surprise guest appearance at the seminar.  In a pre-AC (Asian Crisis) commentary, Knight explained how the needle trade (toys and clothes) was the first stage of development.  In a recapitulation of modernization theory, he assured us that "once the roads were in" it was natural for companies like Nike to go elsewhere (to distant lands with no roads, I assume) and make room for the more capital-intensive industries to continue pushing the newly industrializing nations along the road to capitalist bliss.

Nike's PR machine responded to our challenge by sending a delegation of apologetic representatives, offering research grants to study the problem (under the name "The Rising Tide Program"), and distributing glossy packets on their social development efforts in Asia and Central America to anyone who would take them.

While the Nike campaign was successful in grabbing the media's and the company's attention, the Code of Conduct campaign developed by the UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Texile Employees) student interns in the summer of 1997 provided a route for change.  UNC activists began pushing for a strong Code of Conduct in the second year of the campaign.

Using Codes in Building a Movement?

There was a proposed code on the table promoted by the Collegiate Licensing Corporation (CLC), a company that represents 160 universities in their licensing relationships.  Students criticized the CLC code because it lacked a provision for a living wage and the requirement of full public disclosure of factory locations.  Surrounding our relatively small collegiate debate was a much larger political entity: the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP) and its implementation arm, the Fair Labor Association (FLA).  While students and administrators were still wrangling over the CLC, some universities were negotiating with the FLA. [See Medea Benjamin's "Putting the Fox in Charge" for an analysis of the Fair Labor Association, ATC 79, March-April 1999.]

Why?  With the CLC process, the question of monitoring such a code had yet to be addressed.  The AIP, on the other hand, had already written a charter for the FLA that outlined how monitoring of the AIP code would take place, securing company control of the process.  In March of this year, seventeen universities announced their membership in the FLA and by May, over seventy had joined.

The critique of the FLA quickly broadens to the larger question of whether or not monitoring codes of conduct is a useful solution to sweatshop conditions at all. Under the FLA charter, companies can control the selection of sites, who does the monitoring, when it is done, the methodology used and the information gathered.  A factory location is considered so confidential that the locations are to be coded before they are distributed to the FLA staff.

Universities have the option of correcting for some of these flaws directly through their licensing contracts.  They could select a short list of acceptable monitors, require public disclosure, require access to monitoring reports, etc. The administration at UNC has pledged to do just that, and, in addition, start its own pilot monitoring program.

All the same, by joining the FLA, universities provide credibility to a flawed institution.  Many universities that have joined with little or no student pressure do not plan to supplement the FLA with anything.  Furthermore, the concessions students gain that are worked out through contractual arrangements with licensees could easily be reversed if interest in this issue on campus dies down.

Since we have yet to change consumer culture to include working conditions as another criterion for consumption choices, consumers' and students' interest in fair working conditions can fluctuate.  Codes and monitoring are consumer-driven, not worker driven, initiatives.  For that reason Neil Kearney, General-Secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation has voiced opposition to the monitoring efforts.

In some pilot efforts, monitoring directly or indirectly undermined the efforts of the unions in the factories.  In El Salvador, for example, the independent monitor tried to take on the union's negotiating role. In Asia, a company agreed to monitoring and then claimed they no longer had the obligation to negotiate with the newly formed union.

In general, little effort thas been made to consult workers and local unions about codes and monitoring.  One exception may be Guatemala, where, after seeing tensions arise between the unions and monitors in Honduras and El Salvador, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center tried to take preventative action by sponsoring a forum between organized labor and an independent monitoring organization.

The national discussion about codes and monitoring in the United States has been a long process of dispute and compromise.  Why should it be any different in the nations at the center of these debates?  Part of the reason workers have been excluded from these discussions in the United States may have to do with how the anti-sweatshop movement sought to raise public consciousness in the first place.  The most successful campaigns highlighted the most brutal conditions.  Consumers and students were motivated by images of girls behind barbed-wire fences and testimonies of physical and sexual abuse.  Concerned consumers and students see themselves as voices for the voiceless, for impoverished women and girls who slave away their youth sewing our clothes.

When I lived in Guatemala last year, I saw a more complete reality.  A quick example: I asked a cleaning woman I knew if she had ever worked in a maquila "I tried it once," she replied.  "But I was too much of a cry-baby.  You have to be really tough to work there and I just couldn't take it."

After doing lengthy interviews with women trying to organize in the maquilas in Honduras and Guatemala, I understood what she meant.  Some women and girls may indeed see themselves as victims with no options.  But there are also many who see themselves as breadwinners and agents of their own destiny.  They chose to work in the maquila and they hope to improve their conditions through organizing.  These workers need to be at the table with us as we discuss the conditions under which they work and live and what we can do about them. As our grassroots campaigns continue, we need to focus on the diversity of maquila women's and girls' experiences and exchange images of helpless victims with images of solidarity partners.

Where Does the Movement Go?

As you may imagine, the sweatshop debate quickly becomes technical and complicated.  Student activists at universities that have passed codes of conduct are wondering: What next?  There are a few students on each campus involved in the policy debates, but that does not lend itself to mass mobilization.  Yet at critical times, for example when we may want to push universities to leave the FLA, we will need to be able to mobilize a lot of support.

At UNC, after a year of the Nike campaign, we formed a group called Students for Economic Justice, with the idea that we wanted to connect with local labor struggles and broaden our base. Across the country, student-labor groups are growing and expanding.  Linking the sweatshop struggle to local struggles is a crucial part of sustaining our movement.  One of the major demands of the anti-sweatshop movement is a living wage, a perfect link to local struggles.

While a few students continue to advocate for policy changes in licensing at the university, the student-labor movement must remain strong by connecting the international and the local issues.  Universities cannot ignore the problem of sweatshops.  There remains a strong democratic movement within universities that seeks accountability for the moral ideals of the institution.  Universities are an easy target compared to corporations, who continue to function in a moral vacuum.  Perhaps universities can be transformed into the whistleblowers of a society that values profit over people.  In order to affect universities and their influence on society, however, the student anti-sweatshop movement must demonstrate that it has staying power.

I agree with the analysis of many student leaders in the movement: our power is in grassroots organizing on university campuses.  We will be able to sustain ourselves if we focus on educating students and not becoming too engrossed in the legalistic debates; if we encourage our peers to think beyond the image of helpless third-world women (promoted as much in academia as in activism) and rather, to think about how we can work in solidarity with them as our partners; if we build and diversify our coalitions; and if we connect to the local labor struggles in our communities.

It is a tall order but we have the energy, the passion, and the analysis to spark change.


Marion Traub-Werner is a fourth-year student at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Latin American Studies.  She interned last year in Guatemala with the US-Guatemala Labor Education Project.

ATC 81, July-August 1999