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Going native

By Tom Collins
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 29, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Tom Collins

At 8:45 a.m. the UA Mall was buzzing with industry as the daily corporate sponsored giveaway bazaar opened for business. The campus looked and sounded like the campus looks and sounds - all red brick and that sleepy studiousness that is Arizona.

The sound of the bullhorn was not out of place. It blended into the bustle of interclass transportation like a run of the mill manic street preacher. Still, approaching the Administration Building, the sight of the banners flailing like the standards of some misbegotten army prove that these are not ordinary days at this most apathetic of universities.

The Students Against Sweatshops sit-in was well into its eighth day. Already that day the group had met with President Peter Likins and had some progress to report: It appeared a provisional agreement to withdraw from the Fair Labor Association if provisions on wages, treatment of women, location of factory and unannounced monitoring were not met had been reached and talks continued on the creation of an advisory board serving under the Faculty Senate that would monitor labor issues for the UA.

While the banners hung like 1968, inside, on the seventh floor, a cell phone was beeping off the hook and faxes from around the country were pasted to the walls.

I slipped into the vestibule and into a seat leaning up against the Arizona State Museum artifact display that dominates the small foyer to the president's office. There are about 10 students in the vicinity. A student walked in condemning the "assholes" at the Arizona Daily Wildcat and the SAS group retired to their conference room to debrief on the days activities. Likins himself slipped out of the office and I am alone.

Alone, but for the pile of sleeping bags, pillows, used cups and book bags. And the cell phone, beeping in contrast with the activists hand drums and hastily hand-lettered banners. This is activism 90s style - the e-mailed support of Honduran workers and the need to remain somewhat groomed and well-fed. The SAS students rotate in and out of the Admin building like so many Jump Rope for Heart participants. So long as someone is sitting there, there is a sit in.

"It's a different way of doing business," UA attorney Mike Proctor chuckled as he passed through.

At the SAS sit-in, the last bastion of consistent university activism, the only sound was elevators.

At 9:30, I read about American foreign relations and pointed interested students in the direction of green ribbons that indicate support for SAS. At 10:20, several Women's Studies students came by to research a paper. At 10:40 banana bread, care of the English Department, arrived. At 10:50 an SAS student returns from the outside world bearing a copy of The Arizona Daily Star looking for editorials and letters to the editor. Not finding any, the student turns to Pila Martinez's buried story on the ongoing protest.

"We didn't meet from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.," the student moans, "This woman is an idiot."

Meanwhile, on the floor Noah Suby, a geography senior, is clipping sit in coverage from the Wildcat.

"I've always considered myself a humanitarian," Suby said, turning from his interview with the Women's Studies students. Suby said he sees the labor problems as evidence of American imperialism, but adds that his gingham patterned shirt is probably unclean.

"This is probably made in a sweatshop because I bought it at Wal-Mart on sale," said Suby, who wears his curly hair longish, but well kept, and talks with what only can be described as a Tucson drawl.

About 11 a.m., Likins said something smiley about the 60s at UCLA on a walk through the office, and I asked SAS head Avery Kolers about the war.

Kolers, who actually teaches a business ethics course, is a compelling speaker - quick with an empathetic smile. He is leader of what can only be described as an ugly bunch of relative intellectuals, the kind of people who might get their news from KXCI and their fruits and vegetables from the hippie grocer on Fourth Avenue. They are not an entirely open bunch, spending much time plotting in the university-provided boardroom. But Kolers' talk about the legitimacy of the NATO intervention and the need for international agency reform and subsequent the conver-sation was engaging and demonstrated that, yes, these students have other interests. I began to feel I might like these people.

What's there not to like? After all, in the face of the interests of multi-national corporations and a more profit-minded higher education system, SAS and groups like it are the last line of defense. And so, as I stood on the "presidential balcony" overlooking the campus and really listened, I think I went native.

For example, an advisory board under the Faculty Senate is a good idea for several reasons, the most important being the need to have an institutionalized voice for labor advocates. That is to say, a senate committee would have the results of its work recorded in the Faculty Senate minutes. Therefore, if President Likins backed away from his commitment to the tenets of SAS, there would be a place where a complaint would be lodged and recognized. There would be no way for the administration to quietly walk away from the accords reached in the past week. Thus, if a withdrawal agreement is reached, there would be a practical way to make sure the administration does in fact make good on its commitment to pull out of the Fair Labor Association.

At the end of the day, and at least at the end of my five hours at the sit-in, the protest is not about radical labor activists fighting a reasonable administration, but about a group of reasonable students, taking their cue from reformists past. People working to ensure that the public, both university community and consumer, has access to all the information necessary to make an informed decision about the ways in which they do business. The business interests of the university are not the only ones at stake. Shouldn't the students, faculty and staff of the university, as well as those who would emblazon themselves with the UA logo, have a right as consumers to know who is making their apparel? The very fact that business and administrators are reluctant to agree to terms that encourage the exchange of information suggests that consumers might actually make decisions based on their human rights sentiments.

This is a freedom of information issue. This is about giving us all a tool to be "humanitarian" on some level. The SAS students are the freedom fighters.