A tour group of prospective students roaming campus was treated to a brief interruption of the University’s sales pitch during a stop in the Michigan Union Friday afternoon.
Prospective students and their parents gaped as about 30 protesters wearing black T-shirts with “Fuck Sweatshops” written on them in stark white letters walked by. The protesters also wore blue bandanas over their faces, bank-robber style.
The protesters were students on their way to the Fleming Administration Building to deliver a letter to University President Mary Sue Coleman urging her to sign on to the Designated Suppliers Program. The program would restrict production of University apparel to suppliers that the program says do not use sweatshop labor.
When they passed the tour group, SOLE member Blase Kearney seized the opportunity, approaching visitors and urging them not to buy University of Michigan apparel until the University adopts the Designated Suppliers Program.
After they were finished, they headed to Fleming.
The protest was sponsored by the Sweatfree Coalition, an alliance of groups including Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality and the University chapters of Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The protesters were greeted at the door of Fleming by a plainclothes Department of Public Safety sergeant, who told protesters that no one was in the office who they could speak with.
Kearney told the sergeant that the protesters were unarmed and led the group inside the building.
The group stomped up the stairs in unison to make more noise. They crowded into Coleman’s reception area and handed a letter outlining their demands to a secretary. The protesters sat in silence in Coleman’s office for more than 15 minutes before leaving the building.
No one in Coleman’s office at the time would comment on her location.
The University has taken action on sweatshop labor before.
The President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights met in late April last year to discuss the adoption of the Designated Suppliers Program.
Although the committee recommended that Coleman not endorse the program, it suggested that the University take steps to enforce the existing Code of Conduct for University licensees.
According to the University’s website, licensees may not use forced labor or child labor. The code also includes several other provisions for worker’s rights.
Members of the Sweatfree Coalition said that the code is not enforced. They said the Designated Suppliers Program is better because it would be monitored by an independent source.
The group has set March 15th as its deadline for a response from Coleman, coinciding with the date set by similar groups around the country.
“We want to have solidarity with a lot of schools,” Kearney said. “It’s also the Ides of March,” he added, referring to the date of Julius Caesar’s assassination.
If Coleman hasn’t replied by then, the Sweatfree Coalition will determine what steps to take next, Kearney said.
“We expect she will reply, unless she wants to even more brashly brush off students,” he said.
University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham referred a reporter to a University website with the University of Michigan Code of Conduct for Licensees and a timeline of relevant events.
“Mary Sue is notoriously difficult to get hold of,” Kearney said.
He and other protesters said they felt slighted by the police presence. They said it was a clear indicator of Coleman’s inaccessibility. Alhough SOLE has met with the University’s president in the past, Kearney said one of the meetings began as a fortunate accident.
“We were on the way to an action and we came in the building on one side and Mary Sue came in on the other,” he said. “We saw her in the stairwell and cornered her until she agreed to a meeting.”
Actions like the silent protest take place all over the country, Kearney said.
Two students from Purdue University involved in SOLE’s protest had participated in a 26-day hunger strike this fall along with several other Purdue students in what they said was a last-ditch effort to get attention from an administration they said had no concern for student groups.
Purdue president Martin Jischke didn’t cave, though. He announced last month that the University wouldn’t adopt the Designated Suppliers Program.
“I reached the conclusion that adopting the proposed program in its present form would not be the right decision for Purdue,” Jischke told the Purdue Exponent last month. “We will send an observer to meetings of the Designated Supplier Program working group, and we will continue to study the issue,” he added.