In the mid-1990’s, after nearly 100 years of retirement, the term “sweatshop” became a household term again as stories of horrific abuse and exploitation began to emerge from the factories producing clothes for the U.S. market around the globe. From Manhattan’s 39th St. to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, workers were beginning to reveal the oppressive, dangerous, and often illegal conditions under which they were working to produce the clothes bearing popular labels like Nike, Kathie Lee, and the Gap. Early on, students around the country realized the crucial role that their universities play in propping up the global sweatshop system, and the potential leverage they had to pressure their administrators to change that system. Students at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, and University of California-Irvine began to raise questions about their universities’ affiliations with Nike, while students at University of Wisconsin-Madison did the same over their university’s exclusive contract with Reebok.
The idea of the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign grew out of these earlier efforts. In the summer of 1997, interns at UNITE! designed the first organizing manual for this campaign and brought the idea to Union Summer participants and campus labor activists around the country. The idea behind the campaign was simple: our universities and colleges are complicit in the sweatshop system. Many universities directly profit from the exploitation of the women and men around the globe who make the clothes that bear their logo. To stop this cycle of indignity, we, as students, started to demand that our universities take responsibility for the conditions under which their licensed apparel is made by adopting Codes of Conduct to regulate the behavior of their manufacturers.
In July of 1998, student activists from over 30 different schools active in the campaign came together in New York for a weekend-long anti-sweatshop conference. During the weekend, students formed United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), conceived as an informal but cohesive international coalition of campuses and individual students working on anti-sweatshop and Code of Conduct campaigns. The general goals of the group were: 1) to provide coordination and communication between the many campus campaigns and 2) to coordinate student participation and action around the national, intercollegiate debate around Codes of Conduct and monitoring systems.
In just one year, USAS spread to over 100 campuses across the U.S. and Canada and raised awareness about the sweatshop issue to unprecedented levels. In response to student pressure, the Collegiate Licensing Company, a legal go-between for universities and manufacturers, proposed a Code of Conduct for the 150 colleges and universities it represents in January of 1999. A blatant attempt to abate student criticism, the CLC’s Code of Conduct lacked the three basic principles that make any Code of Conduct effective: full public disclosure, a living wage provision, and a provision for women’s rights. Students across the country resoundingly rejected the code. In January, students at Duke University stage a sit-in, winning a commitment from Duke to require full public dislcosure of its licensees. Students at Georgetown University followed the Duke students’ lead to their president’s office, sitting in and winning commitments to full public disclosure. Students at UW-Madison joined in the wave of sit-ins and raised the floor by winning a commitment not only to disclosure, but also to a living wage study, sponsored by UW-Madison, and a clause on women’s rights.
Meanwhile, the Fair Labor Assoication (a body set up by the Clinton Administration, composed of corporations and NGO’s seeking to rid the world of sweatshops by means of “voluntary company monitoring”) was courting universities. Students, along with religious and labor organizations, had long dismissed the FLA as it allows companies to control the enforcement of its weak Code of Conduct. In fact, the FLA faced a crisis of legitimacy because of its inability to incorporate labor and progressive NGO’s. To resolve the crisis, the FLA sought universities’ membership as universities were seeking a way to subdue student criticism. Shortly after the Madison sit-in, many students were informed that their universities had joined the FLA or were close to doing so.
In response, students at U. Michigan decided to join in the strategy of civil disobedience. They sat-in and won a commitment to full disclosure, and student representation in the discussions around whether or not Michigan would join the FLA. Students at UNC-Chapel Hill followed suit, holding yet another successful sit-in, leaving the building with a commitment to disclosure, a living wage, and “NO” to the FLA. (UNC joined anyway after students went on summer vacation.) The last of our first round of sit-ins came from the University of Arizona, where students sat-in for 10 days to come out of their chancellor’s office victorious with a commitment to disclosure and other principles. Students at schools where a sit-in was neither practical nor a good campaign strategy also spent the spring organizing and winning! In one example, students at Middlebury got a strong Code of Conduct passed by building a strong diverse coalition of support on campus. In another example, students at Occidental College in Los Angeles got a strong Code of Conduct passed shortly after attending the first United States Student Association (USSA)/ USAS Grassroots Organizing Workshop (GROW).
In July of 1999, over 200 students gathered in Washington, DC for the second Sweat-Free Campus Conference. USAS hired its first staff organizer just before the conference and set up an office in DC. At the conference, we set up a governing structure for USAS to facilitate the continued success and expansion of this campaign. The conference body also decided to keep focusing on full public disclosure as a demand of the campaign and work to create an alternative to the FLA, which is now the Worker’s Rights Consortium.