Paul Hampton reviews Students against Sweatshops by Liza Featherstone and USAS (Verso, 2002)
This book tells the story of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the student anti-sweatshop campaign in the USA.
For students in the US, the rise of the corporate university was pivotal in providing the impetus for the campaign. Bookshops, student union shops and bars, canteens, cleaning and maintenance all offer profit-making possibilities. Clothing displaying college logos is a $2.5 billion industry. The contrast between the profits made by Nike, Reebok and other clothing companies, and the poor conditions of the workers who make them (and the conditions of workers on campus), is so glaring that many young people are moved to do something about it.
The result was the creation of USAS in 1998. It now has over 200 campus affiliates, an office in Washington, with full timers and funding from the unions. USAS is the culmination of a decade of campaigning, led by the United Needle and Textile Workers Union (UNITE), the anti-Nike campaigners in Indonesia and Latino campaigners in Texas and Central America.
USAS has drawn on a rich tradition of direct action in American labour history. A wave of sit-ins swept across campuses in 1999, with occupations of administration buildings and shops like Niketown.
Other innovative methods have been used, such as anti-fashion shows, "I'd rather go naked than wear sweatshop clothes" parties and even a naked bike ride. Protests have raised awareness, and forced campus authorities and manufacturers to face up to their use of sweated labour.
One important difference between USAS and other "campaigns" such as the Fair Labor Association (which is controlled by manufacturers) is that it insists that companies disclose factory locations, so that direct links with sweatshop workers can be forged. USAS helped set up the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) in April 2000, to investigate and publicise worker complaints.
USAS has tried to connect its initiatives to wider struggles against low pay and racism. It has listened to women, who make up 90% of workers in sweatshops, to avoid images of "passive Asians", and to understand that most women work in factories for the independence it brings them. Similarly, USAS does not base its campaign on opposing child labour, because it recognises that there are no easy answers.
Girls in developing countries frequently lie about their age to obtain factory employment, and the answer is not just to have Western labour advocates steaming in to get them sacked.
USAS say they are not about protecting "US" jobs - a helpful corrective to those in the anti-globalisation movement which sometimes assume that globalisation is an unwelcome intrusion into "Third World" countries.
USAS has proven its worth in its solidarity with Mexican workers. In January 2001, over 850 workers at Kukdong International Mexico, a Korean-owned garment factory near Puebla, went on strike when five workers were sacked for trying to organise an independent union. Both Nike and Reebok have contracts with Kukdong to produce sweatshirts for American universities. Workers rejected the state-run FCROC "union", establishing their own independent organisation, and occupied the factory - for which they were violently assaulted by riot police.
USAS established strong connections with Kukdong workers, discussing strategy and spreading their message. This solidarity prompted the Nike et al to force Kukdong management to rehire a majority of the sacked workers. Workers have since won improvements. Their independent union, SITEKIM has been officially recognised.
Since the victory, USAS and WRC have maintained a constant presence at Kukdong (now called Mexmode). Kukdong is not just a triumph for workers in one factory; it is a landmark victory in Mexico after the end of one party rule in 2000. As one worker put it, "I realize that the future of democracy in Mexico is in the unionisation of workers in maquiladoras". Sweatshops are not simply an abhorrent species of labour, in a moral class of their own, but a general description of all exploitative labour conditions.
Every low waged job around the globe fails to provide an adequate standard of living for workers; and wage labour is essential to capitalism. The great thing about anti-sweatshop activism is that the horror stories attract people's attention and they soon see how the whole system works. The evolution of USAS reflects this: it is now a broad-based student-labor solidarity group, no longer exclusively focused on garment exploitation on the Third World. It is a model to inspire our own No Sweat campaign.
Link: United Students Against Sweatshops
Reviewer: Paul Hampton