Campaigns around sweatshops seem to be one of the biggest issues for political organizing among students these days.
We estimate that there are anti-sweat campaigns in probably 175 campuses, US & Canada.
Organizationally speaking, how big is USAS?
I'm the only full-time employee. USAS functioned basically as a listserve for a year or so - I was the main coordinator at the University of Wisconsin campus. Then, this year, the organization raised some money and hired me.
You know, there was a conference of about 40 people in NY last summer. At that point there was no indication then at all that [this work] was going to have this amout of energy.
What's the work you're doing?
A lot of campuses have been focused on getting their campuses to pass codes of conduct [establishing labor standards for production of apparel bearing the university insignia.]
There are a lot of voluntary codes of conduct out there, but with a college campus, you've actually got some leverage if [the companies or subcontractors] don't abide by [the univerisity code of conduct]. The universities can say: we license out the name to Rebok and Nike and whatever corporation. That's a pretty big market for these corporations. If they don't abide by the codes of conduct, they can't sell the t-shirt.
There's a basic moral level involved. The anti-sweat stuff has gotten to a point where it's on people's conscience right now. For students: the institutions they have some sort of pride in are profiting off sweat labor. For most students, that's not a justifiable role for universities.
I think there's also a little bit of real identity between students and some of these workers - partially by virtue of the fact that people sewing these clothes are the same age as us. But students are usually coming to college economically pretty well set, and these workers are going into these factories and leaving the factories four or five years later not at all better off.
You could move tactically many ways. Why codes of conduct?
We're trying to find some sort of power to enforce something over the industry. On campuses, you've got a local target you can create power over - the universities. We're not asking these corporations to voluntarily improve their standards. We're going to force it down their throats. . . hopefully [nervous laugh].
Whereas, we could go to Nike and we could ask them to voluntarily enforce its standards, but it's very difficult to enforce that.
What about government?
There are lots of things government can do. The public has a right to know where its clothes are being made and under what conditions. I think it would be terrific to see government pass a bill that requires corporations to publically disclose all the locations of their subcontractors.
Also, you're talking about trade stuff - WTO, IMF. This is driving the global sweatshop, and is driving down wages and working standards around the world. It's pretty systematically being pushed by the US government. But, realistically, that's not something students can influence right now. Our point of influence right now is not over Congress or legislation. At some point, hopefully, we might create aclimate in which we might possibly influence legislation.
We can use this anti-sweat work as a window to talking about trade policies. It's happened a little. I think the anti-sweat movement needs to come to a much clearer sense of consciousness about what it's going to say around the trade policies. Personally, I kind of think one of the ways we need to talk about globalization and trade policy is by using things people can identify with. They can identify with sweatshops; it's hard to identify with the WTO. And universities are a place where these kinds of social questions are traditionally debated.
Where do you see the future of this work?
I think the anti-sweat movement is in one of its most critical points. It has the most energy ever. Its center is at college campuses, where we have a constituency that is starting to organize. We're at the point where we're able to spread this out on a grassroots level.
This seems very connected with the Anti-Apartheid activism of the 1980s and early 90s. Both organized students to pressure universities to think about moral aspects of their economic activities - for Anti-Apartheid work it was primarily investments, with sweatshops it's focused on licensing the image. Have there been links with Anti-Apartheid student activists?
There's been a consciousness of anti-apartheid work as a model, but not really any connection to it. [The anti-sweat campaigns are being led by] new organizations.
There's been a good deal of controversy around the Fair Labor Association. What's your take on that?
The Fair Labor Association is a group that was started around Kathy Lee Gifford press stuff - it is an apparel industry partnership founded by Clinton adminstration. When the FLA was suffering a pretty deep crisis of legitimacy, they went to the students. Through the course of the spring, the FLA brought on about 120 universities to uphold the FLA. It's basically a sham; it's an effort to have corporate monitoring of themselves and then put sweat-free labels on the products of the corporations on the task force. This industry is too exploitative and too dispersed to even dream about certifying it with a socially-conscious label at this point. We have to drag it out from behind the locked gates, barbed wire, and armed guards that it depends on to keep the truth from the public, and force it to be accountable to us and, more importantly, to workers.