By Mick Duncan
No Sweat, the British anti-sweatshop campaign, began life as a national network a little under three years ago. During those three years the organisation has extended the breadth and scale of its work, which has included drives against sweatshop bosses abroad and in the UK.
Five national trade unions and the National Union of Students are now affiliated and No Sweat continues to grow, week by week.
No Sweat’s structures are open and flexible — capable of allowing Trotskyists, anarchists, Labour Party leftists, trade union militants and activists from various other backgrounds to work together for common goals.
The No Sweat project has a number of interesting aspects. First, it can act as a bridge between the post-Seattle anti-capitalist movement and those involved in NGO politics, and the trade unions. The unions can benefit from the life, vitality and energy of the new protest movements. And the anti-capitalists and fair traders can learn some political lessons from involvement in joint-campaigning alongside trade unionists — the centrality of class and the potential power of workers.
So, for example, in 2002 No Sweat linked up with the GMB London region to campaign against the sweatshop bosses of Whitechapel, east London, in a campaign that exposed gross exploitation in the heart of London’s rag trade. The scandal of illegally low-paid workers producing for big names on Oxford Street was splashed across the front cover and inside pages of the London Evening Standard; many of the workers ended up with significant pay rises and improvements to health and safety.
No Sweat’s appeal is wide and vast. People come towards No Sweat for the same sort of reasons that they join Oxfam, People and Planet, and Christian Aid: the world is vicious and unfair, and is carved up by transnationals and governments that rig trade rules and work for the rich and powerful. Brands and logos, forced on us by TV and the advertising industry, are symbols of this and of the way the world is, and rightly disgust thousands of young people.
No Sweat is able to focus some of this discontent and give it a framework.
In the first instance that framework is ideological, not organisational. What No Sweat offers is a particular way of approaching such questions — unlike the mainstream NGOs, No Sweat thinks class is central.
And No Sweat can break that idea down. No Sweat can take a gut disgust — perhaps against the way Nike behaves (paying vast sums to its CEO, Phil Knight, and various celebrity sportspeople, while paying workers who make its running shoes a pittance) — and use it as a concrete example.
Who can deal with Nike? We have a specific answer: our friends in the FNPBI trade union in Indonesia organise in Nike plants. Help them. The independent unions, organised on the ground, are the very best weapon workers have against being abused at work.
And our support is more than support on paper. No Sweat organises practical events and stunts to help press the workers’ case. We have held protests, stunts and demonstrations in defence of Indonesian, Iraqi, Mexican, Haitian and other groups of sweatshop workers. And we have raised money for their organisations, and fixed speaker tours for their representatives.
These direct links can be very important factors as struggles unfold. For example, in 2002 we organised a visit of two Mexican worker activists from Puebla in central Mexico. One of the workers, Josefina Hernandez, had been central to the fight against Nike and local management at the Kuk Dong factory, where the workers had won a ground-breaking victory and built an independent union in a maquila (production for export) factory.
When the Puebla workers began to spread the fight for union rights in 2003 we were on hand to help a massive international solidarity effort. Later that year a No Sweat delegation visited central Mexico, and the bonds we have formed with the local activists will exist for years to come.
In 2004 it is hard for young people disillusioned or disgusted with the world, and attempting to enter politics, to see either the point or the possibility of workers’ action.
We are living in a world where the Marxist project of working class power through workers’ self-emancipation has been heavily discredited, primarily by the disaster of Stalinism. Moreover, battles where large groups of British workers have taken significant, aggressive industrial action have been few since the end of the 1980s.
And the easily available radical organisations young people might have joined 20 years ago — Labour Party Young Socialists, Labour Students, or Youth CND — have gone.
By touring Britain with Mexican, Haitian or Indonesian union militants we are also bringing the message that workers’ direct action struggles can and do work. We are saying: listen to these people and how they have fought and won.
No Sweat stands for solidarity with workers. We are for:
* A living wage
* Safe working conditions
* Independent trade unions
All workers, in every country, deserve and need these rights. In order to enforce these rights, they need to be free to organise — the stronger the union, the safer the workplace!
We aim to:
* Make solidarity with sweatshop workers and their organisations
* Help unionise sweatshops in Britain
* Publicise, expose and help stamp out sweatshop employment.
Practical action can be effective in putting pressure on big brand names. It also allows people to experience new, exciting ways of protest.
So No Sweat uses imagination to plan activities — Halloween actions against Nike; “Streets of Shame” processions and stunts outside notorious sweatshop bosses like Disney, H&M, Puma and Levi’s.
Workers fight and workers win
The message that young people get from school and the media is that workers’ struggles don’t work any more. No Sweat works to counter this view by producing resources that tell a different story.
The latest example is a 16-page comic book, loosely based on the fight of Mexican women workers at the Kuk Dong maquila factory against local factory management, a bosses’ union, and Nike (who produced at this Mexican plant). The workers won a famous victory and now have a free, independent union.
No Sweat Gathering
Saturday 4 and Sunday 5 December
University of London Union, Malet Street, London WC1
This will be the fourth No Sweat Gathering. Expect the usual mix of high profile speakers from all over the world, discussions and debates, films and more on the Saturday, with a social event in the evening. Sunday is given over to practical campaign training.
* Jabez Lam from Min Quan and UK trade unionists discussing the situation of Chinese migrant workers in the UK
* Maria Elena Cuadra Women’s Movement (Nicaragua) and Central American Women’s Network discussing making solidarity with women workers in the Americas
Register now and save money: £10 waged/£5 concs; 1 day only: £7.50/£3.50
Send your name and contact details, and a cheque payable to “No Sweat” to: No Sweat, PO Box 36707, London SW9 8YA.