Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In fashion or not, students still campaign against sweatshops

The signs are everywhere, says Newsweek, that “the age of global human-rights advocacy” is over. Everywhere? Certainly not in the ranks of the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and its chapters in some 250 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

USAS, whose worker-rights advocacy reaches all across the world, is bringing together hundreds of student activists at a national conference at the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville over the February 19-21 weekend. Among other things, they will celebrate a major victory for garment workers in Honduras.

“We are impressed by the social consciences of students in the United States,” a Honduran union president said after a 10-month nation-wide campaign in the United States ended in victory last month. Workers from Honduras will be at the University of Knoxville campus to describe how, against overwhelming odds, the student campaign caused Russell Athletic, a leading sportswear company, to reverse its anti-union position.

The final key to victory was the action of nearly 100 colleges and universities canceling or suspending licensing deals under which Russell Athletic makes clothing and sports equipment with colleges’ names and logos. The company’s decision came after a wide-ranging of USAS campaign that included picketing NBA finals at Orlando and Los Angeles, distributing flyers in retail outlets, and sending Twitter messages urging customers to boycott Russell products.

In the settlement, Russell agreed not only to reinstate 1,200 discharged workers but also to work with unions at its Honduran factories, eight in all. Russell’s reversal is a “giant breakthrough for labor rights in the region,” says Scott Nova, executive director of Worker Rights Consortium, USAS partner, which monitors compliance with standards adopted by dozens of colleges and universities.

As a writer and supporter of USAS since its very beginning, I am especially impressed by two things about this movement:

1. Despite the built-in annual turnover of members and leaders, USAS is pursuing the cause of worker rights with unremitting dedication.
2. It is struggling for the rights not of its own student members but of others -- workers, mostly women, whom they do not know personally and will never get to know. With a few exceptions.

Among the foreign guests at Knoxville, weather permitting, will be a delegation of unionists from Honduras. They will report on the succces of a coordinated effort and the work of repeating it throughout Central America.

(For an article of mine,"Freshmen Are Teaching Elders Lessons in Global Ethics," click on

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