This page is part of Benton Foundation's online archive. We've kept some old stuff around for historical purposes.OneWorld US Special Report
Demographics and Values
The Impact of Seattle
The Fairness Revolution
Bringing Globalization Home
Scanning the Terrain
Different Approaches to Global Education
Youth Activism and Global Engagement: Part VII
A 1999 report on student programs found from interview and focus group research that while "global issues are not a high student priority," two issues do "attract significant student attention and participation:" living wages for campus workers and sweatshop operations. Research indicated that factors encouraging student involvement in social causes include:
"Becoming informed about social or economic injustice issues
An experience that is social and provides a sense of community while doing good
An opportunity to put something on their resume
Their college ministry."
Factors that inhibit student engagement include: being too busy with school and employment; feeling ineffectual; ("anything we do as students is just really small"); and an absence of diversified opportunities to make a difference, from one-time actions to longer-term commitment. Since students are only on campus for four years, they want to be able to get involved with something for a semester and see the result of their involvement.
In less than two years the campaign against sweatshops has emerged as the centerpiece of a revived and globally conscious campus activism. USAS has undergone exponential growth. From its founding conference in the fall of 1998, it now has affiliates on 140 campuses. (Again, it should be underscored that like youth activism in general, students who are "anti-sweat" operate in a highly decentralized fashion. Groups like USAS exercise an extremely light touch, their role limited to logistics and coordination rather than strategic command and control.) A small group of key national organizers, both youth and adult, have played catalytic roles, but the campaign has taken root as an authentic grassroots movement. Its spread is embedded in a complex of factors, many of them consistent with findings from the Oxfam-supported research. The campaign takes an emotionally and ethically compelling issue and uses it to portray the face of globalization and to illuminate the systemic nature of economic inequality at home and abroad. A single narrative brings into focus crosscutting issues of trade, labor and human rights, corporate power, the role of the university, media manipulation, and personal consumption. And a continuum of opportunities is presented for ways that young people can become involved and make a difference, from selecting what to buy to taking over a dean’s office.
Sweatshops evoke a gut reaction. They are laden with mythic imagery and associations; they operate as a shorthand for capitalism run amok, for the way things used to be before labor fought the good fight to organize the dispossessed and make the rule of law hold sway over the economic jungle. It is this lineage that anti-sweatshops activists have built upon and deployed as a source of legitimacy and as a moral cudgel. They collect information about the resurgence of conditions that violate a basic sense of fairness and that most people imagine have long-since been banished. They then frame this information in ways that allow concern to be channeled into engagement.
"Beneath ‘I don’t care’ is ‘I can’t do anything about it,’" said a New York student appearing in a documentary shown at the Human Right Watch Film Festival. Young people can become bruised or even scarred when they are asked to go into battle without adequate support. Helplessness in the face of suffering produces withdrawal. Addressing these issues of efficacy, the anti-sweatshop campaign has been able to serve as social entrepreneur, identifying latent, pent-up demands on the "conscience market," and brokering ways to meet them.
From January through April 1999 the anti-sweatshop campaign took center stage, as activist students occupied buildings on five campuses. They demanded that the administration adopt a labor- rather than industry-endorsed code of conduct governing the production of apparel carrying the logo of their college or university. Students charged that much of the $2.5 billion worth of such branded merchandise sold overall each year was morally tainted because of the brutally abusive conditions in which workers were forced to manufacture goods, and that by remaining silent, school officials were complicit with such exploitation. These concerns had already been raised, and, university officials thought, resolved.
In November 1998, following a two-year planning process undertaken as part of a presidential Task Force, such companies as Nike and Reebok had reached an agreement intended to curtail sweatshops by setting up a code of conduct and monitoring system for overseas factories used by American producers. A new entity, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), was set up to coordinate compliance, and won affiliation from 77 universities. But unions from the U.S. and the global south soon came to denounce the FLA as being corporate-controlled. In its stead, they proposed to create the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a rival monitoring organization under the aegis of NGOs, religious groups, and labor unions that would hold companies accountable to a higher set of standards. These included paying a "living wage" rather simply a prevailing wage, and fully disclosing the locations of their own and their contractors’ factories. ("Tell us where the factories are, and the NGOs will find out the human rights abuses," commented Jeffrey Ballinger, a former AFL-CIO representative in Indonesia.
It was around these apparently technical issues¾ codes of conduct and precise modalities for enforcement¾ that students carried out their direct action. The militancy, at least in the short run, paid off. A cluster of leading universities has agreed to join WRC, though usually maintaining their membership in FLA as well. USAS, with whom students carrying out the occupations were loosely tied, gained exposure and expanded its campus presence. Affiliated groups like MDE/180 (Movement for Democracy and Education) led an extensive series of "teach-ins" on global economic justice geared not only to students but also to local community groups and churches.
USAS and the role of cross-generational mentorship
In their endless quest for identity, young people make or break the clothing industry. If it weren’t for teenagers, brands like Tommy Hilfiger, the Gap and Levi’s would be nowhere. These companies know this. In fact, many of them have special advertising teams and youth-specific marketing plots aimed directly at us, and one thing they’re discovering is that some youth are paying attention to a lot more than how their clothes look. Some kids care about what their clothes are made of and spend their allowance on things like hemp because it’s environmentally sustainable, some care about the quality of their clothes, and that their jeans will live beyond the school year. But what you’ll find almost as often these days is youth that care about where their clothes are made. And how do we find this out? Do labels tell the truth? What exactly is a sweatshop, anyway? Are there any in this country? Somewhere down the line, a few students started to ask questions like these. When enough of them heard each other questioning, they began to look for answers. Thus began the United Students Against Sweatshops. (Wiretap Magazine, June 2000)
The story is a bit more complicated. The anti-sweat campaign did not spring forth fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. It was nurtured and mentored by experienced human rights and labor activists belonging to groups like the National Labor Committee (NLC) and UNITE (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees).
The National Labor Committee has been the single most important catalyst of renewed interest in the sweatshop issue. It’s executive, Charlie Kernaghan, was responsible for embarrassing revelations in 1996 that apparel produced under the Kathie Lee Gifford name was being made in sweatshops in New York and El Salvador. That story put the modern anti-sweatshop movement on the map. In the 1980s the NLC had brought Central America union leaders to labor and community audiences in the United States.
We built ten years’ worth of very deep relationships with the labor, religious, student and community movements in El Salvador, and their counterparts here….By 1990, it was getting clear that there would be some kind of peace accord. It seemed to us that it would be a crying shame not to use all the cross-border relationships we had established. We understood that for human rights and worker rights to get really successful, they had to be linked with everyday concerns of the American people. So in 1990 and 1991, we started looking at U.S. companies producing abroad for the U.S. market. U.S. communities were being devastated by those jobs going overseas. We wanted to know what was happening in those factories and to tell a story that was not just trade statistics and wage scales, but which showed young women going into hot dirty, factories, being humiliated, screamed at, sometimes forced to take contraceptives, having their lives wrung out of them. Our gut sense was that the American people are very decent, very empathetic, and very community- and human-oriented. We’re kept so distant from questions of production it isn’t even funny. So when we have a chance to see the reality, there’s a will there to change things.
The challenge of this generation is figuring out how to humanize and bring fairness to the global economy. We aren’t going to win this without institutional transformation. We have to be reaching out to middle America and telling a story that can be heard by rank-and-file unionists, church parish people. We have to build solid organizational relationships. And we have to work with the mainstream media that is the way we communicate. We have to be very good in working that. (unpublished interview with Michael Prokosch)
USAS bears the influence of NLC’s strategic thinking, as well as the hands-on mentorship of staff. It also grows out of UNITE’s direct support for anti-sweatshop activism beginning as early as 1995. A seasoned youth organizer headed the effort and brought on a group of 11 young people as UNITE summer interns in the summer of 1997, many of whom went on to spearhead campaigns on their home campuses. At a spring 1998 conference in New York, 50 students experienced in university-based anti-sweatshop activism founded USAS. The platform called upon the Collegiate Licensing Company, the agent for 160 universities, to push for stronger codes of conduct governing its brand-name suppliers, making sure that a Nike, for example, could not conceal sweatshop conditions within the maze of its manufacturing sub-contracts.
An extremely interesting report, "White Hats or Don Quixotes? Human Rights Vigilantes in the Global Economy," (August 2000) presents mounting evidence that "consumers care about labor standards and will buy products made under better conditions in preference to those made under worse conditions. That many corporations respond to the activist-induced pressures, at least rhetorically, shows they believe such a demand exists." Drawing on existing data and evidence from their commissioned surveys, the report finds that
Most Americans favor linking labor standards to trade
The vast majority say they would avoid shopping in a store if they knew the goods were produced under bad conditions
Consumers said they cared about the treatment of the workers who made the clothing they bought and would be willing to pay 28% more on a $10 item and 15% more on a $100 item
The companies most vulnerable to pressure are those that market to teenagers and young adults, where demand for branded clothing and footwear is often faddish and may depend on the reputation of the firm.
The report argues that "If consumers think that it is uncool to wear a given label’s apparel because it was made in a sweatshop, then retailers would lose sales. The motivation for some teenagers or young adults not to wear sweatshop clothing might be genuine concern for the workers who made the product, but for many it could simply be the desire to be cool with one’s friends."
In Future Positive, Michael Edwards promotes "blending market forces with social and environmental objectives." He argues that:
International cooperation has a vital role to play by developing minimum standards in global markets, improving the endowments of poor people so they can compete more effectively in an integrated economy, and altering patterns of consumption and production, especially in the global North… Consumers have more powers though workers have less; they have choices and more information in an expanding marketplace. This is what underpins the rise of ethical consumption, trading and investing--coffee produced by people who get a higher share of the proceeds, or footballs which are stitched by workers as opposed to slave-laborers.
For many anti-sweat activists, ethical consumption represents the lowest level of political practice. It lacks heroism; it smacks of liberal squeamishness rather than radical solidarity; it offers no test of one’s moral mettle. Furthermore, it tends to identity inequality as something that happens "over there" and to "others"--children in Pakistan or farm laborers in Guatemala--thereby distracting attention from unacceptable working conditions here at home. But precisely because ethical consumption can operate as a gesture rather than a full-fledged commitment, it becomes available to a much broader constituency. Making sweatshop-produced clothing "uncool" represents a significant accomplishment, even if for some buyers the choice becomes a fashion statement rather than a principle. If the campaign on behalf of ethical consumption is creatively designed and promoted, however, it can serve as a gateway to a wider discourse on global interdependence and an expanded set of options for engagement.
A University of Michigan student explained that "one of the biggest reasons why USAS and local student groups opposing sweatshops have been as successful as they’ve been is that opposition to sweatshops isn’t that radical. Although I’m sure lots of us are all for overthrowing the corporate power structure, the human rights issues are what make a lot of people get involved and put their energies into rallies, sit-ins, etc. If we were a ‘radical’ group, university administrations would have brushed us off…The fact that they don’t is testament to the fact that we have support not just from students on the far left, but from students in the middle who don’t consider themselves radical." (quoted in Drier, 1999) After University of Wisconsin administrators initially dismissed anti-sweatshop protestors as an unrepresentative minority, activists ran a slate and gained election for one of their leaders as student body president.
Direct action helped the anti-sweatshop movement gain publicity and demonstrate political clout. But direct action represents a tactic rather than a strategy. The situation is now one of organizational standoff between groups that endorse improved conditions for workers in less-developed countries, but who disagree about the precise modalities to achieve this goal. When the field of battle becomes the negotiating table, protest and expose lose their edge. (And militants who led the struggle may find themselves giving way to others better equipped by temperament or training to the tasks of compromise and deal-making.) An issue that once lent itself to a morally compelling narrative about fairness has now been reduced to what seems, at least to the uninitiated, to be a dispute over regulatory details rather than high principle. To the extent that the competition between the FLA and the WRC becomes the focal point of outreach and organizing, activists narrow the appeal of their message and increase the likelihood that the campaign itself will lose momentum and become bogged down in a quagmire of technicalities. Furthermore, the increasingly bitter rhetoric used by some labor representatives to denounce and demonize FLA supporters risks contaminating the campaign with the taint of ideological fundamentalism.
Like any broad-based coalition, the anti-sweatshop campaign has worked hard to avoid divisiveness and to patch up cracks when they do occur. B.J. Bullert, a shrewd and experienced observer of social movements, has tracked the internecine feuds within the anti-sweatshop movement. Bullert recounts how in November 1998, Medea Benjamin got up before an audience of activists and "applauded Nike for eliminating toxic glues that posed a health hazard to workers in Vietnamese factories." She listed other "victories" resulting from pressure on Nike. In Indonesia, for example, she noted Nike’s sub-contractors now comply with minimum wage laws. Several in the audience criticized what they perceived as her conciliatory approach to a corporate bad guy, and were resolute that activists must keep up the pressure on Nike until it pays a "living wage" and "ensures that workers can negotiate fairly with their employers without company interference." Responding to these criticisms, Benjamin said that "it’s pretty inevitable when you start making some changes—it’s the ‘glass full/glass empty’…I was a cheerleader in high school, and I see it from the cheerleader side, and there are those who see it from old cynic, white man point of view." According to Bullert, "the friction between Benjamin and her critics isn’t personal, but rather it signals a deeper divide and challenge for the anti-sweat movement since different strategies reveal specific and sometimes conflicting alliances…"
Messy collaborations are a fact of political life that young activists should learn about sooner rather than later. But the "conflicting alliance" described above may be symptomatic of something deeper. Comparing anti-sweatshop organizing to earlier social campaigns, Elliot and Freeman conclude that:
The more clearly activists define an objective and provide uniform criteria for measuring progress, the easier it is to sustain a campaign. The anti-apartheid activists had a clear, easily communicated goal. Eradicating sweatshop exploitation, by contrast, is more difficult to measure…Success is measured in incremental steps and requires constant vigilance to guard against backsliding; whereas overthrowing apartheid is a clear-cut one-off triumph…Environmental activists organized a single group (the Forest Stewardship Council) for accrediting certifying groups and developed a single label. In the sweatshop case, arguments over the legitimacy of monitoring groups and the meaning of a living wage has created confusion in the market for standards." (August 2000)
Like youth activism overall, anti-sweatshop campaigning is still embryonic. Its future growth is likely to depend on its capacity to maintain a more clear-cut set of messages that are not obscured by squabbles over technical differences between the FLA and WRC. Students put pressure on college administrators to adopt codes of conduct governing the manufacture of apparel. A number of universities buckled under. But the task of policing compliance falls beyond the role which young people can be expected to play. "To have a bigger effect, anti-sweat activists will have to tackle issues that go beyond poor labor conditions in particular factories or in particular products—such as debt relief and reduction of trade barriers to developing countries—that they have thus far not put at the front of their agenda." (Elliot and Freeman). But broadening the agenda may be problematic.
Until now, students have been able exert at least symbolic leverage on behalf of global fairness by getting involved in their own back yard. This has meant targeting the university as corporate actor and demanding that it take a firm stand against economic injustice. When the focus becomes "reduction of trade barriers to developing countries," the issues become much more abstract and diffuse. Students may no longer feel as if they have a local purchase, a way to direct their moral and political energies that is close to home and that seems to make a difference.
Again, we return to the notion of efficacy. With the exception of a small group whose sense of self is bound up in the identity as "activist" and who see their life’s work as the pursuit of justice, the majority of young people gravitate towards more limited and sporadic opportunities to do good. Many can be recruited to join a limited campaign with specific purposes. But participation dwindles rapidly the more drawn out the campaign, the less clear its goals and objectives, and the less concrete and visible the benchmarks are to progress.
Few youth activist groups are built to last. Instability reflects the developmental dynamism of their members. But it also speaks to the absence of organizational frameworks that are both supple and robust enough to contain and nurture this dynamism.
Putting these frameworks in place exceeds the resources, both fiscal and conceptual, that young people on their own can bring to bear. Collaboration with adult-led institutions thus becomes critically important. Forging an alliance based on mutual respect and joint interest represents a protracted process. But the success of the Sierra Club in nurturing its affiliation with the Sierra Student Coalition shows that it can be done.
Next: Global Education