Upstart Anti-Sweatshop Group Impresses College Officials

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Subject: Upstart Anti-Sweatshop Group Impresses College Officials
From: PJS (
Date: Fri Apr 14 2000 - 09:41:03 EDT

Monday, April 10, 2000

   Upstart Anti-Sweatshop Group Impresses College Officials


   University administrators who attended the first meeting
   Friday of the Worker Rights Consortium, a new anti-sweatshop
   group, came away from it pleasantly surprised: The
   organization, pushed primarily by students and labor groups,
   was far more cohesive and less strident than they expected.

   However, the administrators, who represented about 30 of the
   44 institutions that have joined the consortium, could not
   agree on which three people to elect to the organization's
   governing board, and they issued a letter listing continuing
   concerns that they hope the consortium will answer.

   The universities asked for further explanation of how the
   consortium is financed, called for a way to "reward" apparel
   companies that have maintained good working conditions at
   their factories, and raised concerns about the makeup of the
   organization's governing board. They questioned whether having
   it be made up of three college officials, three students, and
   six members of the consortium's advisory board -- whose
   members represent mostly labor unions and labor-rights
   organizations -- would dilute university input too much. Also,
   the administrators wondered whether the selection process for
   choosing the student representatives was broad enough. As it
   now stands, the students on the board are chosen by United
   Students Against Sweatshops, a group that works in tandem with
   the consortium. The institutions want students who are not
   necessarily members of United Students Against Sweatshops to
   be considered for positions on the board.

   Nevertheless, most university representatives spoke positively
   about the organization's professionalism, which has been a
   question mark.

   "I was impressed by the depth of insight of some members of
   the advisory board," said Damon R. Sims, the associate dean of
   students at Indiana University. "They really are sincerely
   committed to collaboration with the universities."

   The consortium has been something of a shadow organization,
   operating out of a one-room office in a New York church while
   two recent college graduates traveled the country, trying to
   drum up students' support. Some universities joined the group
   only after students on the campuses held protests or occupied
   the offices of presidents or other top administrators.

   The four-hour meeting in New York on Friday was closed to
   reporters because, among other reasons, "we weren't sure how
   well everyone was going to get along," said David Unger, a
   sophomore at Cornell University. Participants in the meeting
   were interviewed as it broke up.

   The protests advocating for the Worker Rights Consortium have
   been driven, in part, by opposition to the Fair Labor
   Association, a group that evolved from meetings between
   apparel makers and the U.S. Labor Department. About 130
   universities have joined that group, but some students have
   derided it as "too corporate," noting that company
   representatives make up almost half of its governing board,
   and that companies themselves can pick the monitors who are
   supposed to certify that labor practices at factories meet
   international standards.

   Leaders of the Worker Rights Consortium made it clear that
   they were not opposed to universities' belonging to both their
   organization and the Fair Labor Association. The leaders also
   said they would engage corporations in their efforts to
   monitor working conditions at factories. However, they
   reiterated that they had no plans to allow any industry
   representatives on the group's governing board.
   Representatives of Nike Inc., one of the largest apparel
   makers, have already said the company has no intention of
   working with the W.R.C., partly because it will not give
   corporations any seats on the board.

   The university representatives tentatively agreed to meet
   again in late April to elect their representatives to the
   consortium's board. The organization is likely to incorporate
   as a nonprofit group shortly thereafter.


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Copyright 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Penelope Saunders

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