Harsh response to anti-sweatshop sit-in threatens to obscure campaign details at a critical time:
Breaking with a norm of accommodation of student protesters, the University of Southern California last week dramatized their willingness to evade responsibility for the repercussions of their business practices.
On Tuesday April 10, thirteen members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) were threatened with immediate suspension if they did not leave Bovard Hall just minutes after it closed to the public at 5pm. The letters even stipulated that the students would have to vacate their dorm rooms by 9am the following morning. The students were occupying the waiting room outside of President Steven B. Sample's office in an effort to force a meeting on USC's policies for contracting with apparel companies.
SCALE wants the university to switch to an independent regulatory agent called Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), and independent monitoring group that they say provides accountable, non-biased assessment of the subcontractors utilized by each clothing company. Instead, the university is affiliated with the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an alternative monitoring organization whose Board of Directors includes representatives from the companies being reviewed.
SCALE also wants USC to sign on to an initiative of the WRC, the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP), which obligates universities to contract with supplier factories that respect the rights of their employees to organize unions and be paid a living wage.
Instead of meeting with the students about these policy questions, the Administration spent time and resources making threats and even calling their parents, a move that students found manipulative and unethical.
The university community seemed to agree, and indignation has been widely expressed in the aftermath of Tuesday's actions. Some have even called for the resignation of Michael Jackson, the Director of Student Affairs who delivered the threat. But SCALE member Teresa Cheng says this is distracting. "A lot of the attention we’ve gotten has been focused on defaming the university, but I think it's important that we don't turn this into a sidetrack or a tangent. These sorts of actions are nothing new."
According to Carlo Cattaneo Adorno, the students have been requesting a meeting with President Sample for 8 years, with absolutely no luck. During this year alone, he said, they have requested a meeting every single day, in the form of a written correspondence. Each day SCALE sends a letter that reiterates this request and includes a different "fact of the day" regarding the exploitation of workers in the global south who make USC's apparel.
The students have met with lower-level administrators, including Director of Trademarks and Licenses Liz Kennedy. But the students say this is inadequate, and note that Kennedy serves on the board of the FLA.
According to movement documentarian Liza Featherstone, it is thanks to student actions of exactly this sort that the WRC exists at all. The monitoring group was developed cooperatively by student activists and workers' advocates here and in the developing world, following a surge in protests coordinated by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). 168 colleges and universities have since signed onto the WRC, thanks to pressure brought by the students' efforts. (Read Featherstone’s Report)
Featherstone says last week's actions are "part of a likely wave of sit-ins on US campuses, as students are escalating a campaign for basic human rights for the workers, mostly young women, who make clothing bearing school logos." See reports from: University of Washington and University of Michigan.
Much of this action will be focused on the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP), which actively secures contracts for factory suppliers who monitoring has shown to be respecting workers rights. "The DSP is a step beyond adopting an independent factory monitor," explains Cheng. "It would really blaze a trail in supporting workers rights. It's really essential for schools like USC to sign onto this in order for it to be implemented effectively." So far, 31 schools have adopted the DSP, including the entire UC system.
Despite the escalation of administrative resistance, SCALE plans to keep up the pressure on USC and President Sample. "Regardless of whether we win this campaign, everyone in our group is resolved to never stop challenging our university, because we’ve really experienced the degree to which it will go to avoid doing the right thing," says Cheng. She clarified that SCALE is not supporting a boycott of university apparel, which some independent voices called for last week an attempt at solidarity with the protesters. Cheng says this is a misunderstanding of the campaign's goals. "If the workers called for a boycott, we would support them," she said. "But they’re not calling for a boycott. Our camping is not about not buying clothes, it's about supporting workers -- and right now there’s no correlation between not buying clothes and supporting workers."
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