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2000-02-24

Students Protest Sweatshop Labor

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More than fifty anti-sweatshop protesters were arrested Sunday at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ending a four-day sit-in in the chancellor’s office. The protesters, who had been occupying Chancellor David Ward’s office since last Wednesday, had listed seven demands, most designed to give manufacturers less sway in factory monitoring accords that universities agreed to a year ago. [includes rush transcript]

Ward agreed Friday to one of the demands: entering the Workers Rights Consortium, a factory monitoring group that includes workers and human rights organizations. The consortium was developed by students.

Collegiate licensing is a $2.5 billion business nationwide. Some merchandise has been found to be produced under sweatshop conditions in the United States and abroad. The University of Michigan and Indiana University also joined the factory monitoring group on Friday.

Guests:

  • Molly McGrath, University of Wisconsin student involved in the anti-sweatshop protests.
  • Eric Brakken, Student Anti-Sweatshop Coalition. Call: 202.NO-SWEAT.
  • Dan Yaeger, co-author of Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth (Warner Books, 2000).

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, we are going to an event that’s been taking place over the last few weeks around the country, at the Universities [sic] of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania and University of Wisconsin. And they are protests taking place in chancellors’ offices calling for an end to the use of sweatshop labor in making college sports apparel.

We’re joined right now by two people from Madison, Wisconsin. Eric Brakken is one of the students who has been leading a national effort against sweatshops. And Molly McGrath is a student at University of Wisconsin, one of more than fifty students who got arrested this week in the chancellors’ offices.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

ERIC BRAKKEN:

Thank you.

MOLLY McGRATH:

Hi.

AMY GOODMAN:

Hi. Why don’t we start with Molly? Molly, what year are you in at University of Wisconsin?

MOLLY McGRATH:

I’m a senior.

AMY GOODMAN:

And tell us what happened this week?

MOLLY McGRATH:

Well, we occupied our chancellor’s office on Wednesday, February 16th, and had permission to stay there until Monday. And on Sunday morning at about 4:30, about fifty-four people were arrested after he called the university police in to remove us.

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you explain exactly what your protest was about, what exactly you’re calling for?

MOLLY McGRATH:

Well, it was — we had about seven demands. But basically, it was for him to terminate membership in the Fair Labor Association and to pledge to a five-year membership in the Workers’ Rights Consortium. And what those things are, are both monitoring organizations for factory workers that produce apparel that’s licensed to colleges and universities.

AMY GOODMAN:

Eric Brakken, you’re one of the people who started this whole movement. Explain how it began and what the Fair Labor Association set up by the corporations are and how it contrasts with the Workers’ Rights Coalition that groups around the country are calling for their universities to join.

ERIC BRAKKEN:

Yeah, students have been kind of examining this link between their universities and the leverage that they have over companies that use sweatshop labor for a few years. And last year, if people remember, there were a lot of protests of a similar nature, and it was essentially asking universities to take a stand on the issue, to hold companies accountable for basic worker rights.

After those protests started to happen and a lot of national attention was focused on the universities in the anti-sweatshop movement, a number of universities received a letter from the Department of Labor calling on them to become full members of the Fair Labor Association. This was last March, and it was done without any of the students who had begun this movement and pushed their universities to take a stand, knowing that it was happening.

The Fair Labor Association at that point was suffering a pretty extreme crisis of legitimacy, because just a few months earlier, all of the labor and religious representatives who had been in the negotiations in setting up how this association should run and work and try to stop sweatshop labor had pulled out of it, saying that it was nothing more than a corporate front, saying that it was weak on several counts, including that it allowed companies to submit a list of which of their factories around the world would be subject to inspections by independent monitors, that those companies would get to select which monitors would be inspecting their factories, that those factories would receive advance notification of monitoring visits happening, and, you know, more generally, that you would have Americans flying in, parachuting in, to a place like El Salvador or Indonesia for a few days without the workers’ trust and expecting that they’re going to find the truth in an industry where workers know that they can’t speak the truth to most people.

By contrast, students started — students along with non-governmental organizations, labor unions, religious groups, both here in the United States and throughout the world, have been developing since last spring this mechanism called the Worker Rights Consortium. And instead of developing it in classrooms and boardrooms in the United States, we’ve been doing it by actually traveling and speaking with workers in Central America and Southeast Asia, soliciting feedback from organizations that we know throughout the world, and trying to construct something which is actually going to find out the truth and is going to try and empower workers and support their efforts of trying to create substantive change in their factories. So it’s much more of worker-centered system, one that’s being supported and has energized, I think, a lot of the anti-sweatshop community throughout the world. And it’s something that, if we get universities to endorse and then become participatory members in this, has the chance of creating leverage over the industry and beginning to pull this industry from behind the cement block walls that it hides behind, behind the barbed wire, out from behind there, making it a little bit more accountable to the public.

AMY GOODMAN:

Molly McGrath and Eric Brakken, we are going to switch gears just for a few minutes. And I’m going to ask you to bear with us, because our next guest has to catch a plane. But because the next subject involves the execution of a woman tonight in Texas, we want to be able to talk to him before he leaves. But then we’re going to come back to you, and also I want to play for you a quick conversation I had with Spike Lee the other night about how he feels about your protests — Spike Lee, who has been a spokesperson for Nike. And we also are going to expand the discussion to Don Yaeger, who is one of the authors of Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN:

You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman. In just a little while, we’ll be joined by the great dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. 2320

But before we do that, we wanted to go back to our conversation with two students, one who’s just graduated from the University of Wisconsin and one who is a senior. The one who is a senior, Molly McGwire, was just — Molly McGrath, was just arrested this week at the chancellor’s office at the University of Wisconsin, protesting the policies of the university and calling for the university to pull out of the Fair Labor Association, which is a corporate-based group that voluntarily monitors corporations that make the clothing for college sportswear. And more than fifty students were arrested there. Students protested at the University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania, as well. Eric Brakken is with us, who’s one of the founders of the anti-sweatshop student movement in this country, also now out at the University of Wisconsin.

Eric Brakken, right now where do you see the movement around this country?

ERIC BRAKKEN:

Well, it’s actually pretty strong. It’s grown pretty dramatically in the past year to now, where at — we estimate somewhere over 175 campuses have students running this sort of campaign. And, you know, literally in every part of the country, in places where there’s not traditionally a lot of student activism of any kind, now there’s actually even statewide, regional networks being drawn up, with a lot of solidarity in between campuses.

And that actually is — solidarity is something which is pretty evident in the entire movement right now, where lots of students have been coming out in support of each other’s campaigns on other campuses. In the middle of the University of Pennsylvania’s sit-in a couple weeks ago, they wanted to draw more national attention to what they were doing, so they called for a two-day-fast, and students at over sixty universities joined them in a two-day fast and drawing attention to what was going on there. After the arrests at the University of Wisconsin just a few days ago, we received reports of banner drops going on at other campuses, saying, "Free the Madison 54." There were students at Penn State University, over forty-five of them, who entered their president’s office and demanded that he get on the phone immediately to call the chancellor at Wisconsin and demand that he drop all charges and accede to the students’ demands. So this sort of thing is starting to mark the student movement right now.

AMY GOODMAN:

I wanted to play for the two of you a comment, or a little conversation I had with Spike Lee. It was right near the Apollo Theater just a few days ago, when Bill Bradley and Al Gore were having their final debate before the March 7th primary. And Spike Lee was there to endorse Bill Bradley. And I had a chance to go up to him and ask him about the protests that are taking place. You have to listen carefully because it was, to say the least, a very noisy room. It was where the spin was happening after the debate, when everyone was coming out and endorsing either Gore or Bradley.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    This week, students have occupied the offices of — in the last few weeks, of the chancellors of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, and they’re protesting the clothes that are made by the university, sport clothes being made in sweatshops. You know the whole controversy around Nike and sweatshops. And I wanted to know what your response to it is.

    SPIKE LEE:

    I think any time students make a stand, it’s good, because, for the most part, I think the students are apathetic. But it shows that they care about what’s going around in the world.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    But having —- you yourself having worked for Nike, what about the criticism, especially of young people, saying that these corporations have to be a lot more responsible and that celebrities -—

    SPIKE LEE:

    You’re right.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    —like you should be critical of them, not giving them more status?

    SPIKE LEE:

    What kind of question is that?

    AMY GOODMAN:

    I wanted to ask what you thought about it. It’s a question that many, many people ask.

    SPIKE LEE:

    I’m not here for that now.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    I know, but I would never get to see you otherwise.

    SPIKE LEE:

    Is that my fault? I answered the first part.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Saying you think that’s it good that students speak out.

    SPIKE LEE:

    Yes. I said that.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Well, what do you think about the whole issue? I’m sure you’ve been asked that before.

    SPIKE LEE:

    I answered the question already. I said I think it’s very good what the students are doing.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Have you ever raised the issue with Phil Knight?

    SPIKE LEE:

    Yes, I have.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    And what does he respond?

    SPIKE LEE:

    Look, this is neither the time nor place for this. You know, you’re not going to bum rush me and ask me a question that has nothing to do — I’m here for Bill Bradley. Alright? So, I don’t like your tactics.

AMY GOODMAN:

That was Spike Lee after the Bill Bradley-Al Gore debate. Again, I had asked him what Phil Knight had said. He said he had a conversation with him, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike. Eric Brakken, what is your response to Spike Lee, who, by the way, said he does endorse what’s going on around the country, these protests?

ERIC BRAKKEN:

Yeah, that’s very good to know. And we may use that. You know, but I think folks like him should know, folks like Michael Jordan and Kathy Lee Gifford should know, that they have a pretty important voice in all of this stuff, and if they actually did, you know, publicly speak out in support of not only the students, but in support of the workers’ struggles that are consistently going on in Nike factories and in other corporations’ factories around the world, that they would have a tremendous, tremendous influence. Unfortunately, a lot of times that we’ve tried to call for that sort of support, specifically from someone like Kathy Lee Gifford, we’ve been met with denials and questions about why we were trying to attack them. All we’re doing is to ask them to take a stand in support of the workers.

AMY GOODMAN:

Molly McGrath, your response to both Spike Lee’s endorsement of what you’re doing, but not feeling it was appropriate to ask him about his involvement with Nike, at least not at that time. I think he said it wasn’t the time or place.

MOLLY MCGRATH:

I actually went to Indonesia to specifically look at Nike’s factories, and I think it’s great that he’s both talked to people at Nike about the conditions that they’re perpetuating and that he supports what we’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, what are your plans now, Molly McGrath? You’ve been arrested along with fifty other people. Right now, what is the state of the decision of the University of Wisconsin Chancellor Ward around what his plans are?

MOLLY MCGRATH:

Well, he has decided to go with a provisional membership right now in the Workers’ Rights Consortium, the WRC, and —

AMY GOODMAN:

Set up by students?

MOLLY MCGRATH:

Well, it wasn’t set up by students, specifically, but students have been one of the main groups pushing for this new alternative to a corporate-monitoring system like the Fair Labor Association. And he has terminated his membership in the Fair Labor Association.

So, right now, what we’re asking — and what’s going on is this sort of crisis of representation on campus. And I guess, like one person said, when there’s not adequate representation, the masses will make democracy. And so, that’s what happened on campus here, and that’s what’s going to continue to happen until they adequately represent our moral consciences here. And so, we’ll be pushing — we’ll continue pushing for more change in this area.

AMY GOODMAN:

You got another kind of endorsement. This was from Phil Jackson, who is the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. He was also at the Apollo the other night to endorse Bill Bradley. And I asked him what he thought about your protest.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Students are closing down chancellors’ offices at UPenn, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, and they’re protesting the fact that their college clothes are being made in sweatshops. What do you think about this?

    PHIL JACKSON:

    Well, I think this is an issue of young people around the country, has been for a while. It started, I think, a few years ago with a variety of apparel that’s going on. It started with tennis shoe factories that were being done all over the world in third world countries. And it’s an issue for young people that they see the world being used as a manufacturing ground for American products in the sweatshops that are going on now overseas.

    And I think it’s great. I think it’s great for kids to protest that type of thing. They have to understand what it means to our system and what it means to our ability to produce our own stuff and for the costs that it’s going to cost us to put apparel on. That’s OK. If you want to protest and if we want to pay higher prices for things in this country, I’m all for it.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    It really connects directly to this presidential race: both Bradley and Gore support NAFTA, support the World Trade Organization. You came out for Bradley, is that right?

    PHIL JACKSON:

    That’s right.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    So what do you say about that? They’re saying that they’re making it more possible for these companies to go abroad and exploit people, because their governments won’t protect them.

    PHIL JACKSON:

    Yeah, but there’s a certain amount of things and pressures that they could play upon, that type of things, the NAFTA treaties, etc., that there are prices, there are certain limitations to the NAFTA treaty which says there have to be wages paid to people. It’s not something that is free, wide open marketing that goes on in sweatshops. This is something that we’re trying to say, hey, we’ve got to improve the rights of workers in Mexico right now, as we are going through this period of NAFTA...

AMY GOODMAN:

That is Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, speaking just after the Bradley-Gore debate. Eric Brakken, your response to his response to your protests around the country?

ERIC BRAKKEN:

Well, I mean, I think he’s right in that this is an issue and that this is something which hopefully will permeate somewhat into the presidential race. And what’s going on on college campuses now is only an extension of, I think, a more general unrest that’s going on, you know, by workers, by other community folks in this country. You know, obviously everyone knows about what happened in Seattle. And I think that’s being reflected in a lot of places. And what’s going on at universities right now is only students’ most recent reflection of that. You can’t open up — you can’t open up and accede to corporate power around the world and allow companies like Nike, like Wal-Mart, just to go anywhere they want without any basic respect for basic worker and environmental protection.

AMY GOODMAN:

If people want to get in touch with the national anti-sweatshop movement, where can they call?

ERIC BRAKKEN:

Our phone number is (202) NO-SWEAT. (202) 667-9328.

AMY GOODMAN:

That’s (202) NO-SWEAT. I want to thank you both for being with us, Eric Brakken of the national Student Anti-Sweatshop Coalition and Molly McGrath, a senior at University of Wisconsin, one of more than fifty students to be arrested this week in the chancellor’s office at the University of Wisconsin.

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