University President Mary Sue Coleman’s decision to allow 12 student demonstrators to be thrown out of the Fleming Administration Building in handcuffs this Tuesday was a slap in the face to the thousands of workers worldwide who struggle to survive on sweatshop wages to produce University apparel. Her outright refusal to negotiate with students not only demonstrated her contempt for student activism but also sent a clear signal that the University will continue to embrace the use of sweatshops in the production of clothing bearing the Michigan logo.
For two years, Students Organizing for Labor and Equality has encouraged Coleman to adopt the Designated Suppliers Program, a proposal guaranteeing an end to the use of sweatshop labor in making University apparel. Thirty universities, from Duke to Grand Valley State, have already endorsed the DSP. But Coleman has refused to discuss the DSP with students and maintains that students must acquiesce to the appropriate channels if they wish to engage in productive dialogue. She has consistently redirected student concerns to the Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights, a dilatory advisory body charged with enforcing the University’s Code of Conduct, which prohibits the manufacture of University apparel under sweatshop conditions.
Coleman’s predecessor Lee Bollinger adopted this code in 1999 following SOLE’s two-day occupation of his office. But the code remains unenforced. Bollinger recognizes that abuses continued, and as the president of Columbia University, he has endorsed the DSP. Coleman openly admits that the code of conduct is failing to ameliorate the hardships workers face, yet she still refuses to adopt a proposal to do something about it.
Those who make University apparel have borne the brunt of the University’s inaction. Workers in factories producing clothing with our logo routinely grapple with the burdens of compulsory overtime and physically strenuous work. The overwhelming majority of sweatshop employees are women who face the humiliations of mandatory pregnancy tests, limited or nonexistent bathroom breaks and, in some cases, forced abortions, all for the sake of a wage that does not provide even the barest of necessities.
Workers face brutal suppression when they organize to improve conditions in their factories, and victory all too often leads only to unemployment. Factories where University apparel is manufactured have closed down in response to demands for a just wage and fair treatment as corporations flee for non-union shops.
For example, workers in the BJ&B factory in the Dominican Republic banded together with American students to win shorter hours and an unprecedented wage hike. In response, Nike and Reebok pulled their orders from the factory, forcing BJ&B to shut down and condemning hundreds of workers to unemployment. This is the story across the globe as corporations abandon factories with union representation and opt to do business where labor is cheapest and treatment of workers is at its most depraved.
The DSP would put an end to this barbaric race to the bottom by guaranteeing that workers are not punished for asserting the rights guaranteed under the University’s current code of conduct. The DSP requires that corporations like Nike and Adidas can only make University apparel in factories that respect freedom of association and provide a living wage. As such, Nike would not be able to pull all of its orders out of a unionized factory like BJ&B. Such a proposal would reward factories for respecting the rights of workers rather than giving corporations an incentive to cut and run.
The Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights recommended last April that the University not endorse the DSP, instead making vague promises to strengthen the existing (and utterly ineffective) code of conduct. However, the committee has met only intermittently over the course of the academic year and has devoted less than 14 hours (roughly the equivalent of a sweatshop worker’s daily shift) to devising an alternative.
Of course, the committee’s inaction is moot. Despite Coleman’s insistence that she doesn’t “sit in (her) office and be the grand pooh-bah and say thou shall do X, Y and Z,” the real decision making power lies not with advisory bodies but with Coleman herself. She had the opportunity to make the University a leader in the struggle to end sweatshop labor. Instead, she callously allowed 12 students to be sent to jail for daring to challenge the brutally oppressive status quo. It’s up to us to help her change her mind.
To get involved, check out www.uofmsitin.com.
Elliott Mallen is an RC senior and a member of SOLE.