Addressing workers rights
Think, Question, Resist
It is an exciting time to be an anti-sweatshop activist. Today the administration is meeting with the Executive Director of the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) and within the next 30 days the administration will decide whether to join the WRC. This is a result of the Progressive Student Alliance's anti-sweatshop campaign, which culminated last March in an administrative promise that within 30 days of an arranged meeting with the WRC, it would make its decision. Now we are finally having that meeting.
The WRC was created by anti-sweatshop activists, primarily students, to monitor facilities that produce university goods to test if they follow the university's standards (as defined by a code of conduct). It was also a response to the creation of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which activists felt had fundamental flaws.
As the WRC was created by activists, its approach is to fight sweatshops by empowering workers. By contrast, the FLA was created with support of apparel and footwear corporations, like Nike, who only care about sweatshops so much as improving conditions or appearing to do so, helps their public image. This is evident in the fact that the WRC is governed by administrators, student activists, non-governmental organization representatives and worker-allies. Note that the WRC is intentionally excluding corporations from its board. By contrast, the FLA gives sweatshop corporations veto power over major decisions.
In the wake of this past weekend's conference to form a Collegiate Living Wage Association that Notre Dame sponsored, it is interesting to note that the WRC requires a living wage whereas the FLA does not. As our school has demonstrated support for this concept, it would be strange if we did not join the only monitoring association that calls for its implementation.
Another substantial reason for joining the WRC is that it will require that all working conditions and monitoring reports be publicly disclosed. This means the public can read for themselves whether Notre Dame apparel and goods are produced in sweatshops and guarantees our accountability.
When I last wrote a column about the WRC, it had 20 members. The administration was reluctant to join, because it felt that the WRC had not finalized its structure. Now the WRC has 71 member schools. It also has a new Executive Director, a completed structure, and it even just sent its first delegation to investigate the conditions at a Nike plant in Mexico that fired workers who were trying to form a union.
The only thing that might still be preventing Notre Dame from joining the WRC is a perception that the WRC is associated with an activist approach to sweatshops, which is ultimately anti-corporate. I think this may not prove to be a problem, as Notre Dame has shown that it too is willing to take a strong activist stance on this issue when it is necessary. It is currently doing so by requiring that workers have a right to organize, although this will mean no more production of goods in China. In addition, as so many other universities and colleges have joined the WRC, it is no longer a radical act to do so.
Notre Dame may or may not join the WRC. However, the issue of worker rights does not end there. Where things begin to get even more interesting is whether our University is willing to apply to itself the same standards that it requires of the producers of our university goods. Will we pay our campus workers a living wage? Will we take a position of neutrality in response to worker attempts to organize unions? Or will we oppose them like we did over 20 years ago when the administration fought the groundskeepers or just several years ago when the administration stopped a secretaries' organizing drive by promising a pay increase, which later was not delivered? And will the University involve students and staff, including activists, in the decision-making process regarding these issues? In the next 30 days, and years to follow, Notre Dame will show by its actions whether it believes in the human dignity of labor.
Aaron Kreider is a third year sociology graduate student. His column appears every other Monday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, February 5, 2001