College students across the United States wear sweatshirts produced in sweatshops in countries like the Dominican Republic and Indonesia. Students in United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a national organization made up of student advocates at over 150 campuses across the United States, have campaigned for their universities to use their purchasing ability to ensure workers’ rights in these factories.
At the end of November 2012, Emerson College joined over ten other Boston-area universities to affiliate with the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent organization that monitors labor conditions at factories that produce the garments sold in college bookstores.
Emerson decided to join the WRC following a semester of advocacy by students in the Emerson Sweat-Free Coalition. The group started by talking to students about the working conditions at the factories that produced their university apparel. According to Abbey Interrante, a freshman at Emerson and a member of the Sweat-Free Coalition, “Most of the students were upset about it—they had no idea that was going on, they had no idea that the clothes they were wearing were made in sweatshops.”
Many colleges choose which factories to purchase apparel from based on the recommendations of the Fair Labor Association (FLA). But students in USAS say the FLA is not a sufficient standard for their universities. According to an undergraduate USAS organizer at Northeastern University, the FLA itself includes companies that purchase apparel made in sweatshop factories, like Adidas and Nike. In contrast, she says, “the WRC is completely independent. It does not receive any funding from any corporation.”
Students in USAS-affiliated groups across the country have asked their campuses to only purchase apparel that is made in factories approved by the WRC. According to WRC’s website , 180 college and universities are currently affiliated with them; Rutgers, Boston University, Boston College, Brown, and Suffolk University joined recently.
College students across the United States wear sweatshirts produced in sweatshops in countries like the Dominican Republic and Indonesia
Now students at many of these universities—including Northeastern and University of Massachusetts at Boston—are asking their universities to end campus contracts with Adidas until the company agrees to pay $1.8 million in severance pay owed to Indonesian workers. Others, like undergraduates at Harvard, are asking university bookstores to increase their stock of sweatshirts made in Alta Gracia—a factory in the Dominican Republic that employs union workers making a living wage.
In fact, USAS campaigns coordinated across the country have been successful in truly changing labor standards in many garment factories. In 2009, Russell Athletic agreed to reopen a factory in Honduras and allow workers to organize into a union after over 100 campuses to cut their contracts with Russell.
After winning their campaigns in solidarity with international workers, some USAS members, like those at Emerson, have turned their attention to the rights of workers on their own campuses. According to Interrante, the Emerson Sweat-Free Coalition has now joined with Emerson Progressives and Radicals in Defense of Employees to organize with campus security guards and the Service Employees International Union. And last year, students in Northeastern’s USAS-affiliated group joined a coalition called Huskies Organizing With Labor, which gathered students to support 400 dining hall workers’ successful effort to organize into Unite Here Local 26.
Whether they are working for campus worker justice or international solidarity, USAS students say that the most important part of their organizing is working together with students on other campuses. According to Interrante, “we worked a lot with students at Northeastern, and they gave us a lot of insights. It’s a lot of solidarity going on.” And the organizer from Northeastern says that students, united, can truly challenge the poor labor practices of multi-national corporations.
“It is our clothes that are being made in these sweatshops,” she said, “students have a lot of power in the global garment industry.”