Worker empowerment is crucial for fair labor
Progressive Student Alliance
In 1911, 146 women died when a fire broke-out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York. On May 10, 1993, a fire started in a Bangkok toy factory. The main exit was locked, stairways collapsed under a rush, people jumped out of windows and over 180 died. Sweatshops kill.
If the administration of Notre Dame was deeply concerned about worker rights then they would not have fought and squashed the groundskeeper's and cafeteria workers' attempt to unionize in 1978. If the administration cared more for workers than Notre Dame's image and bottom-line, then maybe Malloy would have appointed the most ardent campus supporters of worker rights to the anti-sweatshop taskforce. But he did not. Maybe the administration would not have sold the bookstore to Follett to reduce or eliminate "costly" workers' benefits. (Example; being able to send your children to Notre Dame at extremely reduced tuition.) Perhaps they would not be currently considering out-sourcing custodial jobs (again trying to reduce wages and benefits).
Worker empowerment is the goal of the anti-sweatshop movement. We want workers to have enough power to be able to demand and win fair conditions without needing outside help. The common occurrence in the apparel industry of unsafe conditions, abuse, forced overtime, black lists, forced pregnancy tests and poverty wages show why worker empowerment is so critical. When examining the administration's anti-sweatshop efforts, one should ask whether they are empowering workers or trying to kill the issue and cut their losses?
After sit-ins at Duke, Georgetown and UW Madison, around March 11 Phil Knight, CEO of (we-pay-our-Indonesian-workers-25-cents-an-hour) Nike, wrote every university and college president urging him or her to join the Fair Labor Association (FLA— a system to monitor producing facilities). Four days later, Notre Dame joined the FLA as a founding member. With this kind of history and from analyzing the agreement, the anti-sweatshop movement has decided that the FLA is an attempt by corporations and co-conspiring universities, to stop the movement dead in its tracks by agreeing to small improvements while covering up the existence of the vast majority of sweatshops. For instance the FLA does not require a living wage. Its language actually forbids disclosing the locations of factories, while full public disclosure of facilities would be the best way to ensure that any sweatshop monitoring system is working, and would allow independent third parties to investigate. With the FLA, the public will not know whether a corporation has sweatshops or not. Monitoring reports are kept secret, with only an annual summary released. For any corporation to get expelled from the FLA for violations, or for any rule improvements (such as requiring full public disclosure, a living wage or women's rights) two-thirds of the corporate representatives must agree! Is it any wonder that no workers' organizations support the FLA?
The administration has hired a multi-national corporation to start monitoring factories. Most workers assume large multi-nationals are in league with their bosses (because most of them are), and do not trust them. If we wanted to empower workers we would use human rights, labor and religious organizations that come from the workers' communities, to do all of our monitoring. Corporate monitoring bypasses grassroots organizations and disempowers workers.
About a dozen universities have committed to full public disclosure. Five of them did it because students sat-in administration buildings. Full public disclosure is a key part of the program to empower workers which is called the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). The WRC was created by anti-sweatshop activists in consultation with workers and shows far more promise in fighting sweatshops than the FLA. Already Brown University has joined the WRC and soon other schools will follow. Perhaps if we push hard enough, Notre Dame will be one.
Now I'm not asking you to sit-in. But we need people to stand up for workers rights. We have to show the administration that students care about this issue. We need your help collecting signatures, putting up posters, running information tables, leafleting football games, writing letters to the editor, organizing and attending rallies, discussing with your friends and more. Tonight at 7p.m. in 107 O'Shaughnessy we're having a meeting to plan action. And after all our actions, if our administration still decides to patronize workers, support the corporate-dominated-movement-killing FLA, refuses to publicly disclose facilities and stalls on requiring a living wage — then maybe we will sit-in. The administration is scared to death that we might.
Aaron Kreider is a graduate student and president of The Progressive Student Alliance.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, October 26, 1999