Thinking About the Antisweatshop Movement

Thinking About the Antisweatshop Movement

A Proposal for Modesty

In the past two years an antisweatshop movement spearheaded by students has swept across U.S. campuses. Student groups, most of them affiliated with a national organization called United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), have called attention to sweatshop labor abuses at factories producing sports apparel with university-licensed logos—a multimillion dollar industry for universities—and have demanded that universities seek an end to such abuses. They have asked that universities require contractors to disclose the locations of all of their subcontracted factories; adopt codes of conduct requiring that contractors agree to produce only in factories where sweatshop labor abuses have been remedied and where workers are free to organize; and affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a group established in 2000 to assure monitoring of factories by independent, on-site grassroots worker groups and their international nongovernmental organization supporters.

This latter demand has proved the most controversial, for it involves a repudiation of an alternative group, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), whose formation was brokered by the Clinton administration and its Apparel Industry Partnership, and whose board includes the very corporations whose factories it is supposed to monitor. The FLA’s premise is that corporations, labor and human rights supporters, and universities can collaborate constructively. It is governed by a board of directors that consists of six industry representatives, six representatives of labor and environmental groups, and a single representative of the more than one hundred affiliated universities (plus one executive director). The board works on the basis of a qualified majority rule principle that gives effective veto power to the industry representatives.

The FLA is thus at odds with the central premise of the student-supported WRC—the idea that corporations and their subcontractors cannot be trusted and that independent monitoring is essential to the achievement of labor rights. For this reason, the FLA is anathema to USAS, a hostility that is reciprocated by the FLA and especially by its corporate affiliates, who have disparaged USAS and the WRC as “ideological” and “unprofessional.” In spite of this ideological antagonism, the FLA can be seen in part as an effort to co-opt the pressure that USAS, along with other antisweatshop campaigners, has successfully generated on campuses and in the broader society.

The students’ greatest success has been their ability to press many major universities to affiliate with the WRC, thereby committing to the principle of independent monitoring and agreeing to provide financial and moral support to sweatshop workers and to labor and human rights groups that support them. The WRC is a unique organization, a consortium consisting of three distinct and autonomous constituent groups—USAS students, universities (principally university admini...