Sitting in against sweatshops

AUSTIN, Texas--When University of Texas (UT) President Bill Powers refused to listen to their demands at a meeting in April, anti-sweatshop activists took their protest to the next step--and refused to leave his office.

The Texas Students Against Sweatshops (SAS), which is affiliated with United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and Oxfam UT, have been working for years to get the university to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).

For more than a decade, UT, which makes more money off licensing its college clothing than any other university, has so far refused to affiliate with the WRC, and instead maintains a relationship with the Fair Labor Association (FLA).

But the FLA has proven incapable of protecting garment workers from unsafe and unfair sweatshop conditions. Activists point to the FLA's lax monitoring of factory conditions, with fewer than 5 percent of factories checked per year, and its lack of transparency. Violators go unnamed, so that pressure can't be applied up the supply chain to the big-name companies that UT contracts out to produce Longhorn apparel. As SAS member Billy Yates explained:

Craig Westemeier, who sits on the board of the Fair Labor Association and is the head of logo licensing at UT, does not believe that the WRC is a good idea. The FLA allows corporations to monitor themselves, while the WRC empowers students and labor. UT has a lot of corporate backing, and we think this is a big reason.

Since UT is the largest collegiate apparel producer, if it signs on with the WRC, it would set a precedent. Some 187 schools, including peer institutions like Ohio State and the University of Florida, have already signed on, but UT is still the biggest.

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FOR THE last three years, SAS has sustained a campaign to switch the university's affiliation to the WRC, an independent apparel-monitoring agency whose goal is combating sweatshops. Activists have conducted many demonstrations and petition drives, along with building coalitions and involving student government.

Given the university administration's attempts to stall and postpone instead of responding to student activists' demands, the fact that SAS has been organizing over several semesters is impressive in and of itself.

It's difficult to sustain momentum through the summer and winter breaks and graduations--and that what administrators count on. SAS has been asking President Powers to address this issue since the fall of 2009. A Student Government resolution was passed in favor of it in the fall of 2010.

Finally, Powers said he would commission a report from UT Athletics. The only problem? One of the two investigative appointees sits on the FLA board! So it's no surprise that the report came back claiming that the FLA was doing a great job.

After four long semesters of organizing, Powers finally agreed to meet with SAS members on April 29. Six students and one expert researcher on maquiladora labor conditions were prepared to give Powers their research.

But instead of being prepared to negotiate and discuss the findings, Powers treated the meeting like a social visit, acting like it was the first time he'd heard about the issue. Activists sprung into action. Students told Powers that they weren't leaving his office.

Once a larger group of activists waiting outside in the lobby got the word that Powers was stalling again, they began getting the word out to their networks to call the president's office and voice their support for the students and for the agency that would better protect the workers who produce UT apparel.

SAS group members took to the main street across from UT to inform passersby of the situation and urge them to call in. A huge banner was displayed outside the UT Tower where the president's office is located to draw attention to the student occupation.

SAS members inside Powers' office were on the phone, too, calling other activists and the news media. Hearing the constant ringing from the calls of solidarity at the reception desk gave the students confidence. They sustained the occupation from 3 p.m. until after 5 p.m.

Supporters in the lobby held signs, chanted and asked to people coming in and out of the president's office, "Did you ask him about the sweatshops?"

SAS activists hope that their actions will be a catalyst for further progress and evidence for the national momentum building around country to demand accountability in the arena of colligate licensed apparel, and protection of the garment workers who produce it.

"Next year we will really focus on taking off right where we stepped off," said Yates. "The administration knows our names. They know what we are working for. They understand that we have backing locally, on campus and nationally, and they know that we are going to do this until we win.

"We want to build stronger coalitions with other campus organizations and do more outreach. Our biggest challenge will be mobilizing more people, contacting more alumni and institutions and really bringing this issue to the forefront of people's minds on campus."

Michael Schwartz contributed to this article.