Student activists continue fight for labor rights
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Sociology senior Val Swan plays the guitar while anthropology sophomore Oliver Deighton listens outside of President Likins' office during negotiations.
With a record-setting 10-day sit-in, UA Students Against Sweatshops struck the latest blow in what has become an explosive, nationwide movement to protect the rights of workers who produce collegiate merchandise.
In only two years, a small activist group operating in just a few schools has expanded to nearly 80 universities.
While the group functions mostly on the local level with little centralized leadership, SAS members agree the power behind the movement lies in the nationwide support.
Avery Kolers, head of the University of Arizona's chapter of SAS, said without support and encouragement from the united group, reform would have been difficult.
"I don't think we would have seriously considered a sit-in if it hadn't succeeded elsewhere," he said.
The sit-in has become SAS' tactic of choice for convincing university administrators to agree to activists' demands - most notably, full disclosure of factory locations.
UA spokeswoman Sharon Kha said SAS members were valuable in bringing the issue to UA President Peter Likins' attention earlier in the year, but said the sit-in did not raise his level of dedication.
"The president has said that SAS put this particular human rights issue to his agenda," she said, adding that his commitment was strong regardless of the group's written demands.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Members of UA Students Against Sweatshops hold a meeting in the boardroom of the Administration building during day 8 of the protest. The sit in lasted for a record-setting 10 days.
Kha said the national movement is effective in drawing attention to the issue, but fears it may force business away from foreign countries and reduce the quality of their economies.
SAS chapters at six schools, including the UA, have taken over their presidents' offices to demand alterations to their universities' labor codes.
The UA chapter's sit-in ran longer than any demonstration so far, more than doubling the four-day protest at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Kolers said the national SAS organization was very supportive during the grueling demonstration, in part because the UA is such a prominent athletic school.
"Before the sit-in there was a lot of encouragement," he said, adding that other schools often think, "What Arizona says goes."
He added the widespread support probably had some influence on the president. Kolers had heard that other university administrations involved in the issue had advised Likins to negotiate with SAS.
Kolers, who led the sit-in, said that other students from across the country sent the president mail, pressuring him to sign their resolution.
The university has the image of a corporate school, with strong influence on labor issues because of its contract with Nike Inc., Kolers said.
Tom Wheatley, an SAS representative from Wisconsin, agreed that the UA's protest was influential. Wisconsin was one of the first schools to hold a successful sit-in.
"All of us are really in awe and admiration," he said. "To hold out for so long is really impressive."
Wheatley said the UA victory is important because of the resistance the administration gave before accepting the demands.
"The resolve of the students of Arizona will reverberate at other campuses across the country," he said.
The graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison is also impressed by the way the movement has grown locally.
Anti-sweatshop activism began on the level of individual schools and gained attention nationally, showing the concern across the country, he said.
"The campaign has risen up at a grassroots level," Wheatley said. "We've been united across the country."
He said that students are so eager to take on the cause, as opposed to another human rights issue, because of overwhelming pride in their schools.
The movement started with a few New York interns working with labor rights groups in the summer of 1997.
One of those founding members was Tico Almeida, a student at Duke University, who has watched his cause go a long way.
Almeida and a handful of fellow interns returned to their respective universities in the fall and created Students Against Sweatshops chapters.
He said each protest that ends successfully increases the strength of the cause.
"Every time one more school agrees (to full disclosure), it makes it harder for other schools to deny that," Almeida said.
Today, about 75 to 80 schools are involved in SAS and Almeida said about five to 10 universities have declared that they will demand full disclosure. Whether they will sit-in to achieve that demand is unknown.
Even Almeida was awed by the length of the UA sit-in.
"I'm very impressed that they stuck with it so long," he said. "It was certainly one of the most hard-fought of the agreements."
As for the future of the movement, he said the UA's protest will probably be the last in the nation until the fall, but thinks that other administrations will have a hard time not giving in to the demands.
Kolers agreed that the momentum of the SAS cause is increasing, especially after the rally at the UA.
"There was sort of a snowball effect," he said, referring to the increase of support across the country. "This (UA's sit-in) could serve to bump the movement up a level of mainstreamness."
As for the future, Kolers couldn't say who will join the ranks of the SAS victors.
"I wouldn't tell you even if I did know," he said.