Sweatshop Protest

Sweatshop Primary #4

Casually wandering through the quad on March 24, 2000 meant you were in for a surprise. Twelve Syracuse University students were riding around naked on bicycles, covered only by signs. Many of these students represented the Students Coalition on Organized Labor (SCOOL). When asked about the unique protest, Pat O’ Leary, a member of SCOOL, claimed, “We would rather go naked than wear sweatshop-labored clothes.” They circled the quad in protest of SU’s hesitation to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), and to end the school’s affiliation with Nike Inc., a company accused of using sweatshops to manufacture collegiate apparel. There were various events held throughout the week for example, “Students camped out on the campus Quad and held candlelight vigils, a mock sweatshop, and various theater shows.” The mock sweatshop was accompanied by a shanty town and its purpose was to demonstrate the real life conditions of workers in third world countries. These demonstrations that were taking place on campuses across the nation were a mirror image of what was happening globally, but on a much smaller scale. At this time activists across the country stood together in solidarity to protest against organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO was accused of abusing their powers, causing environmental, labor, and social policy violations. Similarly, Nike manufacturing laborers were faced with physical and mental abuse, along with extremely low wages.

During the early 2000’s, Syracuse University was only a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), along with 134 other colleges and universities. The FLA is a non-profit organization designed to improve working conditions and wages of sweatshops. The FLA allows companies, such as Nike, to self-monitor their own factories assuming the companies involved will truthfully uphold the FLA Workplace Code of Conduct. Due to the belief that large, powerful companies would skew the monitoring results for their own profit and benefit, students were pushing Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw to join the Worker Rights Consortium. The WRC is an independent labor rights monitoring organization. Factory inspections are conducted at random by the consortium, and public reports are given. A main focus of the consortium is to inform the public of the true conditions of these factories, and to improve respect of workers rights. In addition, the WRC serves as an outlet where workers can explain their concerns without the fear of the company’s consequences. Syracuse students favored the Workers Right Consortium because they felt that workers overseas would benefit more from the consortium as opposed to the FLA.

Screenshot (1) Prior to the naked bike ride, one of the first small protests occurred on February 28, 2000. “Sweatshop University” was plastered up on a homemade sign, fluttering in the air for all to see during a men’s basketball game in the dome. This was the work of the Student Coalition on Organized Labor. Within the blink of an eye Public Safety and Dome personnel escorted SCOOL peacefully out of the building. As a result of displaying this banner for such a minuscule amount of time, the message was not clear to fellow students.

One month later students gathered together for an organized march and began their way to the administration building. “Keep SU Sweatshop Free, Sign on to the WRC” was chanted in unison accompanied by signs. Getting into the building was not a problem, but a barrier was soon approached. Department of Public Safety officers kept the students from handing a petition signed by 1,200 people to Chancellor Shaw. Instead it was given to the secretary and discarded.

With no further action taken after Sweatshop Awareness Week, SCOOL held a rally on October 29 at the SU School of Law to once again demand the support of the university. The rally served as a warning to the administrators that direct actions would continue to be taken, and featured guest speakers from the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) and SCOOL. Over twenty members of SCOOL preached their beliefs to students visiting SU for a New York Public Interest Research Group conference. The speeches encouraged the students to begin to take action and pressure their schools to join the WRC. Floating over the crowd was a giant Chancellor Shaw head, as cheerleaders continuously chanted. At this point in conflict, 62 schools had already joined the consortium.

Even after the various protests, a petition that gained the support of SU’s Student Government Association, and a meeting with the chancellor, SU still did not join the WRC. Curtis Rumrill, a student activist at the time, described Shaw as uninformed about the issues stating, “He’s a really good diplomat, very good at not answering questions. He implied that sweatshops are a cultural phenomenon and asserted that we shouldn’t impose our labor standards on other cultures.” SU’s spokesman Kevin Morrow argued that Chancellor Shaw was well informed and concerned about workers’ rights claiming, “Everyone involved in the sweatshop fight agrees on the desired outcome-better working conditions. How to achieve that outcome is still being determined.”

On November 30 at 6:30 AM, members of the Syracuse Community Action Network (SCAN) hung a banner across Hendricks Chapel saying, “Wake up Shaw. Sweatshops are the Problem. The WRC is the solution.” SCAN members had climbed scaffolding in place for repairs on Hendricks to hang the banner. It was taken down 4-5 hours later because the group did not get permission to post it.

In early December 2000, an advisory board continued to recommend that Shaw not join the WRC. The majority of the 14-member panel was against joining the WRC due to “…concerns about the organization’s operating budget–$300,000 compared to the FLA’s $2 million–the group’s lack of relationship with the corporations it polices, the quality of its monitoring and its current lack of not-for-profit status.” The advisory board did agree to have a representative from the WRC present a different perspective at the next meeting. SCOOL was not surprised that the board was against joining the WRC claiming that the members only care about the money aspect of the situation.

A few months later the advisory board gathered together, and worked to make a recommendation about the WRC to Chancellor Shaw. Their final decision was a complete turnaround from the original thoughts expressed a few months prior. The board now advised that Shaw should join the WRC. Publicized working conditions of a factory located in Kukdong, Mexico helped to persuade the members of the board. The WRC investigated this factory and found that, “Child labor was used and that’s in violation of Mexican Law.” Along with child labor the factory also “…admitted that they beat, called the workers names, screamed at them and did not pay them minimum wage.” Lastly, the “Workers’ right to organize was not being respected.” Although this factory was not currently manufacturing apparel for Nike, they had made collegiate apparel for SU in the past.

Finally, on March 27, 2001, Chancellor Shaw announced that Syracuse University would be signing on with the Worker Rights Consortium. This decision made Syracuse University the 76th school to become affiliated with the WRC. Shaw also decided to maintain ties with the FLA. Other universities such as Boston College, Cornell University, and University of North Carolina were affiliated with both the WRC and FLA also. “The groups can and should be complimentary to one another”, stated Bob Durkee representative for universities to the FLA board of directors. Syracuse University is currently associated with both organizations. Screenshot (2)