By Jim Byagua
The United Students Against Sweatshops 2003 conference met in New York on Thursday 7-Sunday 10 August 2003.
This was a conference about building student-worker solidarity. Naturally, the subject of sweated labour in the "third world" was a large part of the conference discussion, but no less significant were the discussions that focused on organising with unions in the US.
We heard reports from International Interns of their several-month-long placements with unions in countries such as Mexico, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, El Salvador and Bangladesh. But a large part of the conference was spent debating how to fight against long working hours, low wages and unacceptable conditions in US workplaces - campus workplaces in particular.
The first full day of the conference began with activists from throughout the country describing their victories and achievements over the last year. That started the conference off very positively - a mood which continued throughout. Friday sessions were on: the FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas - similar to GATS) describing what it was, how people were mobilising against it; how to organise on campus; Coca Cola and the struggle of trade unionists in Colombia; on sweatshops and the global economy; starting and running a campus "Living Wage" campaign with campus employees, especially now that many campus workers are facing job cuts as a result of federal education budget cuts; and the "Raise the Floor" campaign - the latest phase of USAS's Sweatfree Campus Campaign which uses the leverage students have on campuses, and the tactic of demanding wage disclosure, to support workers demanding a living wage.
In the evening a shop steward from the New York Subway union, TWU, addressed the conference. Hotel workers came to tell us about their unionisation campaigns in the city and the dramatic improvements they had won. Some of the restaurant workers from the newly formed workers' centres in the city also spoke, and we ended the day in downtown Manhattan joining the weekly union demonstration outside a restaurant where one of their members had been fired and the rest not paid overtime.
Saturday was spent deciding the direction of the organisation for the coming year. An explicit effort was made to balance debate by having separate lists of those who wanted to speak for and against (indicated by raising hand with thumb up or down) and allowing them to speak alternately. The Coordinating Committee was to be elected on Sunday, and I found it interesting to hear that as it's difficult and expensive to meet regularly, many of the "meetings" are done from homes using the conference call facilities that phone companies now provide.
The 200 student activists at this conference come from all across the US. They have years of experience of organising worker-solidarity campaigns and often a deep knowledge of sweatshop issues. They were well clued-up tactically, having discovered how best to persuade or force concessions and then systematically sharing these experiences. The conference was friendly and constructive. With its focus on worker solidarity both at home and abroad, backing up the working class fight against poverty pay and unacceptable conditions, it was also inspiring.