People in the country and on this campus
are obsessed with cost and price and wages. We bemoan our piddling
internship salaries. We gripe about the cost of football tickets
and the hike in the price of textbooks. We look at rising tuition
bills and then wonder why University President Mary Sue Coleman
made $475,000 last year. When we apply for jobs, the thought is
always in our heads: “Let’s cut to the chase —
how much will I get paid?” Well, let me suggest another thing
we should wonder about: the wages of the factory workers who make
the University-licensed apparel that we all wear. As I mentioned
above, we know Coleman makes $475,000. We know Nike Chairman,
President and CEO Phil Knight made $2.88 million last year. What we
don’t know is how much Knight pays his workers (safe guess:
not enough). We don’t know, and in fact, no one outside of
Nike really knows. It is a mystery to the world, and it is of vital
importance that we find out.

Jess Piskor – Opinion

The defenders of capitalism make grand claims that free-market
forces will raise up all ships and that an unfettered market will
create social justice. Informed consumers are necessary for the
fulfillment of this promise. The logic of social justice via
capitalism is that those buying goods make intelligent choices and
reward those companies whose practices they support with their
business, and punish those companies they do not by not buying
their products. Clearly price is a major factor, but it cannot be
the only one. Goods made using slavery would cost less, but
hopefully consumers would not frequent such a business, taking
their money to other stores with higher prices but with acceptable
business practices.

This idea is all well and good in theory. Companies with good
labor practices should be rewarded, and those who use slaves in
sweatshops should be punished. Unfortunately, as it stands today
consumers are not informed shoppers and cannot know any
company’s labor practices. Some are uninformed out of their
own desire to remain ignorant and not have to face the fact that
their apparel was likely made in a sweatshop. Enlightened shoppers
who search for companies whose practices deserve support, are also
destined to ignorance. These shoppers too are largely ignorant, not
by choice, but because corporations do not reveal important
information about their products.

There is hope; United Students Against Sweatshops, since 1998,
has united universities across the nation with workers in apparel
factories to help ensure that corporations are held accountable for
their actions. It is because of USAS and their affiliate on our
campus, Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, that
university administrators have enacted codes of conduct that set
out guidelines for how corporations must behave if they want to use
university logos. On our campus, SOLE staged a 51-hour sit-in in
then-President Lee Bollinger’s office in 1999 to force him to
sign a code of conduct. In 2000, SOLE again forced the University
to act by getting it to join the Worker’s Rights Consortium,
a nonprofit organization that inspects and issues reports on the
working conditions in factories that make collegiate apparel.

These codes and watchdog organizations already have improved the
lives of workers around the globe, as pressure from campuses across
the nation forced apparel makers like Nike to recognize unions in
third-world sweatshops. Their success has not come easily, however
— up until recently, apparel makers were unwilling to even
disclose where their factories were. As far as Nike and other
apparel manufactures were willing to admit, their clothes
miraculously showed up pre-sewn on the racks at Foot Locker. That
little tag on the back of the shirts may have said China, but
that’s as much information as anyone was likely to get.

In partnership with a coalition of schools under the USAS
banner, including the universities of Wisconsin and Indiana and
Western Michigan University, SOLE is readying a campaign for wage
disclosure that would make companies that want to use our logo
reveal how much they pay their workers or face losing our business.
Once a database of worker pay levels across the globe is
established, corporations can be held to local minimum-wage laws
and it will be easier for groups like the WRC to enforce
established laws against unfair labor practices.

Our corporations cannot have it both ways. If they want
international reputations, worldwide logo recognition and brand
appeal, they need to open up their books and show consumers they
are worth it. If capitalism is to ever begin to fulfill its promise
of a better world, we need informed consumers today.

Piskor can be reached at
“mailto:jpiskor@umich.edu”>jpiskor@umich.edu.

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