The Sweatshop Protests

It was a “win for students,” the New York Times headline announced last week. Russell Athletic, a leading manufacturer of college-logo sportswear, had agreed to rehire 1,200 Honduran workers who lost their jobs when Russell closed one of its eight factories in Honduras in 2008 after negotiations over a collective-bargaining agreement reached a stalemate.
Students—U.S. students–were in the picture because an organization called United Students Against Sweatshops had persuaded nearly 100 colleges and universities, including such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and Michigan, to sever or suspend their licensing agreements with Russell, a unit of Fruit of the Loom, that allowed Russell to put their logos onto T-shirts, sweatshirts, and other clothing items. All the universities were members of the Worker Rights Consortium, an organization that monitors factories with university contracts for violations of the coalition’s code of conduct regarding labor conditions and relations. United Students had engineered the formation of the coalition—and its financing via subsidies by its participating universities—over 10 years’ worth of sit-ins and hunger strikes on the 170 or so campuses where the organization has chapters The coalition had determined that Russell’s shutdown of its plant in Choloma, Honduras, violated workers’ rights by blocking unionization.
Everyone hates sweatshops, right? So Russell’s Nov. 14 announcement that it would rehire the laid-off workers, set up a new, unionized plant in Choloma, and halt its anti-unionization efforts at its seven other Honduran factories that employ nearly 10,000 people, seems like a win-win situation. The workers get their jobs back, Russell presumably gets its university-logo business back (some of the licensing agreements are worth more than $1 million in sales), and Fruit of the Loom, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway empire whose sales are reported to have declined during the current recession, gets a needed boost. Plus, United Students received a pat on the head from New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse for their “idealism and energy.” (They had persuaded 65 members of Congress to sign a letter in May protesting the Choloma plant shutdown.)


There’s nothing wrong in principle with student demonstrations of solidarity with causes that students deem just. When the members of Duke University’s women’s lacrosse team wore wristbands bearing the numbers of their male fellow players who had been unjustly indicted for rape in 2006, it was time to cheer—and it would have been nice had there been even more student protests against that war by radical Duke faculty members against the young people they were supposed to be teaching. But United Students’ successful efforts to goad university administrators to take sides in an offshore labor dispute by boycotting a company’s products raises questions about how much genuine student involvement there was in this or other aspects of the anti-sweatshop movement and whether university administrators terrified of appearing insufficiently enlightened capitulate too readily to the demands of tiny groups of campus leftists.
For starters, even the Worker Rights Consortium never charged Russell’s Choloma plant with being a “sweatshop” in any ordinary sense of the term: no allegations of child labor, unsafe working conditions, or punishing hours. Furthermore, the Choloma plant happened to be unionized. What occurred was simply a wage dispute: The pay raises that Russell offered didn’t satisfy the union, and collective bargaining reached an impasse. Whether the subsequent plant closure would have amounted to illegal retaliation had the factory been in the United States is an open question—but the Taft-Hartley Act does give employers here a right to fight unionization (and fairly so, as Chrysler’s and GM’s experiments with union power run amok should teach us). Yes, factory wages in the Third World are pitifully low by U.S. standards, but they beat what else is typically available in Third World economies. The reliably liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column in January quoting garbage-pickers in Cambodia who longed to sit at sewing machines in stifling factories, if only they could. It is notable that most of United Students’ off-campus efforts to drum up anti-Russell sentiment—picketing the NBA finals, leaving fliers at Sports Authority stores—were met mostly with yawns, even in Congress, where 360 members declined to sign the group’s protest letter. Only academia succumbed enthusiastically to the pressure campaign.
Furthermore, United Students has never attracted more than a few dozen students per campus to join its raucous sit-ins with their taunts and picket signs. An anti-sweatshop hunger strike organized by a United Students chapter at Purdue University in 2006 drew no more than 15 students at the outset, most of whom dropped out after a few days when they got too hungry. The organization’s blatantly far-left ideology probably doesn’t help. On its website, which reads like a throwback to the heady days of the 1960s, United Students openly admits that it defines “sweatshop” to mean the global economy in general, that its ultimate aim is to replace capitalism with worker “collectives,” and that backing an international labor movement is a good place to get started. “We struggle against racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression within our society,” the website announces in a near-parody of sweeping political correctness.
Yet administrators at Purdue and elsewhere, obviously fearful that even the most minuscule of student demonstrations would make them look oppressive to their students and unfeeling toward suffering Third World laborers, not only capitulated within days to United Students’ demands, but on many campuses afforded the protesters the VIP treatment that seems to be de rigeur in student strikes these days. (In the fall of 2007 Columbia University allowed five students on a hunger strike that made exceptions for hot tea, Gatorade, and honey-laced water to camp out for weeks in tents in the middle of campus, providing them with free electrical power for their laptops, speakers, and water heaters, plus an indoor lounge to sleep in when it rained. The strike wasn’t over sweatshops but over the protesters’ demands for a watering-down of Columbia’s traditional Western-oriented core curriculum—and Columbia duly complied by including more ethnic-studies options in the core.) It’s not surprising, then, that the Worker Rights Consortium now has dozens of universities paying for its operations—or that United Students has been elevated from fringe to mainstream status in the eyes of university administrators and journalists.
Yes, student protests can be a good thing, and sweatshops—real sweatshops, that is—can be bad, but shouldn’t the people who run universities be a little pickier about which student groups they choose to support and which battles they choose to fight? A far-left organization such as United Students whose revolutionary agenda goes well beyond eliminating sweatshops shouldn’t be making those decisions for them.

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Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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