Students Sit-In to Demand No Sweatshop Apparel and End to Union Busting

By Linda Gomaa, Chapel Hill, NC

Several students and workers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are entering the sixth day of a sit-in in Chancellor James Moeser’s lobby, the longest sit-in at UNC since 1993. About 25 students and workers entered the administration building on Thursday, April 17th and have been occupying it ever since. These students and workers are affiliated with Student Action with Workers (SAW), a UNC group affiliated with United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) international, as well as several other campus groups that are part of the Sweatfree Coalition and community-based youth group, Fight Imperialism-Stand Together (FIST).

Peter Gilbert

Brand names such as Nike and Adidas are currently partnered with UNC to make apparel bearing the “Carolina” name. These brands source the apparel from factories all over the world. It is in the brands’ best interests to pay as little as possible to these factories for the clothing produced by the workers, and therefore have been paying increasingly lower prices for the apparel. This forces factory owners to cut the wages of the workers producing the apparel. Workers in these factories, however, have not remained silent. Many have tried to organize their factories or become involved in union activities. These attempts are met with harsh consequences, however. Union organizers have been assaulted, harassed, fired, and even killed. In addition, brands often “cut and run” from factories in which a union has been established, often leaving hundreds of workers without jobs or means of livelihood.

What is important in this crisis is the power dynamic. While brands have power over the factories, administrations of universities have power over the brands and recently students have begun putting pressure on their administrations to pressure brands to pay enough to factories for a living wage as well as allow freedom of association among all workers.

In 1999, students at UNC held a 72 hour sit-in to pressure the university to adopt codes of conduct which would ensure freedom of association and a living wage for workers producing Carolina apparel. However, almost 10 years later, these codes are still not being enforced because brands refuse to pay enough to the factories to allow for these worker gains. In fact, when factories do follow these codes of conduct, they are penalized by losing orders to other factories that pay their workers lower wages.

The Designated Suppliers Program was designed to combat this practice of brands “cutting and running” from organized factories by requiring brands to source their apparel from factories that uphold these basic human rights, a living wage and the right to organize. The DSP, once adopted by a university, would begin a gradual process of sourcing increasing amounts of apparel from fair labor factories. These practices would be monitored in the factories by a third-party non-profit agency called the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). Already, 42 universities have signed on to the Designated Suppliers Program, including Duke, Cornell, Columbia, and the entire University of California system.

For three years, students in SAW have carried out a campaign to ask the Chancellor to adopt the Designated Suppliers Program. Because the students have been ignored for these three years, they decided to stage a sit-in, the fourth in the country in the past two weeks, all for the DSP, to pressure the Chancellor to adopt the DSP and uphold the labor codes that the university already has in place. The first in the recent string on sit-ins took place at Penn State University on April 15th when 31 students were arrested on the first day demanding the DSP. Later that week, 9 were arrested at Montana University followed by 6 students being arrested at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. With the UNC-CH sit-in currently in its sixth day, students at University of Florida have begun a hunger strike.

“The University tries to portray itself as a university for the people but this struggle around the DSP exposes their true motives – profit and friendly relationships with big corporations, “ stated Ben Carroll, member of both SAW and FIST. “While the University likes to talk about respecting workers rights, they do everything they can to ignore the demand for a DSP for the apparel with the UNC logo. This apparel brings in huge profits for the university because of the cheap labor they are able to secure by super-exploitation of workers. The University won’t sign onto this program because it would contradict their established capitalist relationships.”

The following website contains more information on the students’ efforts and the campaign for UNC to adopt the DSP: http://dsp4unc.wordpress.com/

Gomaa is a member of both SAW at UNC and the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill chapter of the youth group FIST. She has been an active participant in the sit-ins.

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