Notre Dame is hiding the facts about sweatshops
Think, Question, Resist
The momentum has shifted. In December, when the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) first made an official proposal for Notre Dame to leave the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), the FLA had 130 schools and the WRC only had two. After three months of student activism, there are now 20 schools in the WRC (including Michigan), and four have left the FLA.
Our administration's primary argument against joining the WRC is that it lacks bylaws, a budget, staffing guidelines, etc. First, this ignores the WRC's approach which is to involve universities and Third World human rights groups in deciding these specifics. Secondly, the WRC is more stable relative to the FLA than it might appear.
Today, the WRC has more members than the FLA did when Notre Dame joined it. During our year-long involvement in the FLA it has failed to monitor a single factory, elect a full governing board, certify a FLA monitor or even write the procedures that monitors will follow. While the WRC is growing exponentially, since January the FLA is losing members as fast as it gains them. Joining the WRC is a very small risk for the University, and one that could greatly benefit to workers around the world. I can almost guarantee that with the backing of thousands of dedicated anti-sweatshop activists and experts, the WRC will not fail. But if it does, Notre Dame is only required to pay our membership dues on an annual basis and we can easily withdraw.
Our administration's secondary argument is that they do not want to release monitoring reports. The WRC requires their release so that the public will know what factory conditions are. Sweatshops have thrived because they have been hidden from public view and our administration wants to keep it that way. This is not because our administration is evil, but because they are reluctant to take a stance in favor of worker rights that might offend the rich donors who give as much as $35 million (Mendozas) or $39 million (DeBartolo) to Notre Dame. While I would argue that apparel corporations who have exploited workers in sweatshops for decades do not deserve our trust, our administration is reluctant to stand-up to these corporate abusers.
Notre Dame's sweatshop policy is contradictory. On the one hand we have agreed to the strongest right to organizing clause in the country. Notre Dame did this in recognition that the best way to end sweatshops is to empower workers, by allowing them to organize. By contrast, Notre Dame wants to use its license power to directly tell companies what standards to enforce, without consulting workers. While using our license power is necessary, Notre Dame should hand over to the workers as much power as possible. The right to organize is one step. An additional step is to require disclosure of the conditions at every factory (as required in the WRC). This will allow workers to show everyone in the world what their working conditions are. They can then try to improve them through comparisons with other factories, and by mobilizing awareness campaigns in cooperation with American anti-sweatshop activists.
However, Notre Dame opposes public disclosure of working conditions, probably because we are unwilling to openly criticize sweatshop corporations. Another step towards ending the contradiction is to join the WRC. This would empower workers because worker-rights advocate groups sit on its governing board instead of the FLA's union-bashing apparel corporations.
In response to Whitmore's attempt to discredit the anti-sweatshop movement and PSA, most workers would rather have anti-sweatshop activists sitting on a governing board than sweatshop corporations. Atheist and/or Marxist activists are doing far more for the workers than Christian CEOs. As a complete side note, most modern Marxists agree that Marxism has never been implemented, and just as most Catholics do not follow many teachings of the Old Testament, neither do all Marxists agree with everything Marx wrote (e.g. religion is not always the opiate of the masses). Anti-sweatshop activists include a wide range of moderates, liberals, progressives, anarchists, feminists, Marxists and many faith based organizations. The goal of the anti-sweatshop movement is to improve the conditions of workers by exposing and reforming the harsher tendencies of capitalism, not abolish it. In the future I hope to address the issue of why empowering workers fits in with Catholic Social Teaching, whereas relying on sweatshop corporations to set the rules and hiding monitoring reports from the public does not. Though I think this is self-evident based on the Catholic principles of respecting the dignity of the human person, the option for the poor and subsidiary.
I urge Father Malloy to commit Notre Dame to joining the WRC by April 1, so that we can participate in its formation and demonstrate clear moral leadership on this critical issue.
Aaron would just like to mention that he is a Mennonite. 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, March 27, 2000