Saturday, March 22, 2008

Students Still Teaching Elders about Ethics

“Stop using sweatshop labor!” That’s the rallying cry of a group of students at the University of Houston in their campaign to persuade the school’s administrators to stop doing business with sweatshops that produce sweaters, T-shirts, caps, and other athletic items bearing the University’s logo.

On Monday (3/31) dozens of students will participate in a dramatic protest starting at noon in front of the campus library. It will feature a mock funeral ceremony , complete with a coffin, symbolizing the death of worker rights at UH. A “funeral”procession will follow, wending its way through the campus and ending at the office of President Renu Khator, who just took office two months ago.

One of her first acts was to appoint a committee to study the sweatshop issues that an activist group, the UH Students against Sweatshops, has been raising since June last year. Tim O’Brien, a graduate student in history and head of SAS at UH, sees the committee as “nothing more than a publicity stunt,” and said so in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

His frustration is that Khator, like her predecessors, is not calling on SAS to help in solving the problem. Her new committee, headed by an economics prof, has six other members, including one student representative, who is not O’Brien or a SAS member.

SAS has the support of the UH student government association, which in January passed a resolution in favor of SAS’ twin goals: that UH join the Worker Rights’ Consortium, an independent monitoring organization, and endorse its Designated Suppliers Program, a plan for a new source system of sweatshop-free factories.

In a March 3 letter to O’Brien, President Rhator, after scolding SAS for an “antagonistic manner,” defended the university’s position as follows:

-- Although not a member of the Worker Rights Consortium, “our current practices embody the same spirit and commitment to worker rights.”
-- Adidas, one of the three largest vendors of apparel at UH, is a member of the Fair Labor Organization (FLA), “an organization created to promote a uniform international labor standard and to improve working conditions worldwide.”
-- The other two UH vendors, Collegiate Licensing Corporation and Barnes & Noble, “have adopted a code of conduct consistent with that of the FLA.”

Pointedly, Rhator mentioned that, as a newcomer, she depended on a cabinet briefing for her knowledge of the UH’s “spirit and commitment to worker rights.” The cabinet’s perspective is predictable. She would be wise to supplement it with a briefing from SAS. So far she has declined to meet with SAS.

“It is absolutely clear,” she writes, “that the University of Houston is committed to fair labor practices.” SAS is not impressed by her assurances about UH’s commitment, however. I can understand why.

How does a university carry out that commitment when the university routinely buys goods from countries where sweatshops thrive? The question is important to anyone proud of the UH logo displayed on those goods. To answer it truthfully, madam, some of your students are very much better informed than your cabinet.

The University of Houston is not the first university to face this crisis. It is not a crisis of “disruptive behavior,” as the university states, but a crisis of conscience. In the late 1990s some of the country’s leading universities – Duke, Georgetown, and the University of Wisconsin – underwent similar crises, and came to understand that their students knew how to make a genuine commitment to worker rights. I urge you and your committee to look into the experience of these “peer institutions” too.

Because of the victories achieved by those campaigns to end university complicity with sweatshops, I wrote in February 1999: “Thank the Lord for the college students, many of them just freshmen and sophomores, who are teaching their elders powerful lessons in global ethics.”

In the past decade, many universities have recognized the wisdom of listening to their students, even to students who have engaged in sit-ins and other disruptive behavior. Later, those universities wondered why they didn’t start listening much earlier. When will the elders of the University of Houston start listening?

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Timothy said...

Thanks for writing about our work.

Brendan said...

Thanks, you have no idea how sensible and refreshing this article is compared to everything else that's been written about us.