Students sit in for sweatshop-free clothes

“We want to be proud of wearing our university apparel,” said Aria Everts, a University of Michigan student who was arrested April 3 after staging an eight-hour sit-in at the college president’s office. Everts was protesting against sweatshop-made gear sold on campus.

“We don’t feel right buying the apparel,” said Everts in a recent phone interview with the World.

Police arrested 12 students at U-M President Mary Sue Coleman’s office after they peacefully protested the Ann Arbor school’s lax labor standards for companies supplying university logo apparel, including sweatshirts and hats. Coleman told the students she does not give in to demands from students.

Everts, a junior and sociology major, is a leader with Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality (SOLE), which is heading up a Sweatfree Campaign and is affiliated with Students Against Sweatshops, a national student-led organization that advocates for safe, humane conditions for workers with labor protections and livable wages.

“U-M has a negative history of supporting workers in recent years under President Coleman,” said Everts.

The Sweatfree Campaign is a coalition of student organizations, campus unions and other labor and community groups that urge universities to adopt tougher policies against sweatshops exploiting workers, who make the schools’ logo clothing. Students say workers, mostly located in Central America, suffer abusive treatment, excessive work hours and dangerous conditions. SOLE, for the last eight years, has requested U-M take unfair labor conditions seriously. Sweatshop labor has been an issue for more than a decade on campus.

The coalition says the school failed to enforce its policy against contracting with sweatshops after a previous 51-hour student sit-in under former U-M President Lee Bollinger in 1991. Bollinger agreed to establish a code of conduct saying it would require vendors to disclose working conditions in factories and would contract only with those who meet basic humanitarian principles in dealing with workers. The sweatfree campaign contends those measures are not being met, and the current guidelines continue to allow sweatshop labor.

Students and allies want Coleman to accept a list of clothing suppliers that pay decent wages and allow workers to unionize. The main demand, students argue, is that the university adopts the Designated Suppliers Program, a monitoring system that requires all workers to be paid enough money to support themselves and their family with regular inspections by the Worker Rights Consortium, a nonprofit organization that developed the DSP. About 30 universities, including Columbia University and the University of California, have agreed to use only the designated suppliers.

Coleman plans to meet with SOLE members on April 20, after a year-end report is to be released by the university’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights. The committee is expected to make its own recommendation.

“The main thing is that students here care about workers rights,” said Everts. “We would like the administration to take action now, and be a leading example for our community, other universities and the nation.”

plozano @ pww.org