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Sweat-Free School Purchasing Resolutions: A New Trend?

by Ben PlimptonSpecial to CorpWatch
February 6th, 2003

Maquiladora-UNC
 University of North Carolina

Minneapolis -- Ivy Klassen-Glanzer, a senior at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, was hopeful when the Minneapolis Board of Education met last November to vote on a resolution for which she had spend months campaigning. "They let student speak up a lot in the debates," she noted referring previous meetings. Her optimism was well grounded. The school board voted unanimously to develop a "sweat-free" policy for the purchase of all athletic equipment and apparel. It was the culmination of a local grassroots effort begun in a small south Minneapolis office, and carried forward by a group of concerned students.

Minneapolis joins the growing ranks of school districts and cities across the country that are adopting similar resolutions. The Los Angeles Unified School District unanimously passed a similar resolution in January, which followed on the heels of a sweat-free measure passed by the City Council in October 2002. Twenty separate school districts within the state of New York have implemented sweat-free purchasing policies within the last year and a half, and the New York City Council passed a resolution in 2001 mandating that the city develop a sweatshop free policy for the purchase of all city uniforms. And the burgeoning movement is spreading.

Youth Out in Front

"I wanted to be part of something that makes a difference," said Washburn High School Sophomore Tiphanie Copeland. Students joined forced through YO! (Youth Organizers on Sweatshops and Child Labor.) To rally the support of their peers, YO! presented a draft policy to the City-Wide Student Council before bringing it to the school board. The Student Council suggested that YO! change some of the language.

"We didn't want so many big words," said Copeland, who also sits on the Student Council, noting that they wanted the resolution to be clear to students. The redrafted document passed overwhelmingly by the Student Council and sent to the school board.

School board members were clearly impressed with the students' efforts. "I hope that this will all work out," commented Board of Education member Ross Taylor, "it's a commendable thing these kids are doing." The school board added a clause to the resolution mandating that Minneapolis encourage other school districts--via the Minnesota School Boards Association and the Council of Great City Schools--to adopt similar resolutions.

"I think everyone is very concerned with issues of economic and social justice, especially those of us who deal with children," noted School Board member Judy Farmer.

Tom Hayden, former California State legislator and co-founder of the Campaign for the Abolition of Sweatshops and Child Labor, agreed that students were the driving force behind a similar policy recently adopted in Los Angeles. "Students are a powerful force on this labor issue," said Hayden, noting that students from Los Angeles Unified School District were present at the January meeting with the Board of Education.

School Board Concerned with Implementation

The Minneapolis school board pared down the resolution substantially before passing it. Board members were concerned that the Minneapolis Public School system would be committing itself to a policy that it could not enforce. Board member Farmer points out that the district doesn't have the staff to follow through and ensure that the athletic equipment it purchases is not made under sweatshop conditions. Given these limitations, it was important to board members to establish a resolution that was, in Farmer's words, "feasible."

"We didn't want to mislead students," she said, "we needed to be realistic, and we needed for them to understand the financial limitations that the district is facing."

The costs involved in implementing the policy may be not as much of a burden as Farmer fears. New York State Labor Religion Coalition Executive Director Brian O'Shaughnessy says the sweat-free purchasing policies implemented in 20 different school districts within the State of New York "have not, that we are aware of, raised any costs."

The Minneapolis resolution stipulates that district will integrate the new sweat-free statutes into the already existing purchasing policy. District staff are to report back to the school board in roughly four months, although the Chief Operating Officer and the Director of Purchasing anticipate that the policy will be in effect before then.

There are alternatives to saddling the district with monitoring responsibilities and potentially prohibitive costs. The Workers Rights Consortium, which monitors factory conditions on behalf of colleges and universities, has recently agreed to begin offering its services to public school districts and municipalities. Both Minneapolis and Los Angeles Unified school districts are exploring this option.

In addition, Hayden thinks that there is great potential for the public to serve as watchdog. "Municipal agencies cannot be responsible for oversight," he noted. Hayden suggested that publicizing the contracts developed between the city and retailers will open them up to public scrutiny, thereby holding the district to its commitment to a sweat-free purchasing policy.

Under the Corporate Radar

So far, the sports apparel industry has not reacted to these local sweat-free initiatives. "We haven't heard any vocal opposition yet," explained Dan Hennefeld, an organizer with UNITE, the garment workers' union. Larry Weiss of the Sweat-Free Communities Network observed that "We are still a bit below the industry's radar."

The measures passed in Minneapolis and LA represent an intention, but not an actual policy. Hennefeld anticipates more vocal opposition when corporate retailers begin to feel the squeeze from these policies, a development that might only come about after more cities and school districts get on board.

Nancy Young, Vice President of Communications at the Alabama-based Russell Corporation says that there has been some mention of the sweat-free policies within the company, but that they are not concerned.

"We have been dealing with this issue on college campuses for some time. We don't see it as a problem because we aren't going to have to change anything," she said optimistically.

Young says that the Russell Corporation has had guidelines in place for 4 years that make clear what they expect from clothing manufacturers. They also conduct periodic announced and unannounced audits at the sites or production. Among the brands that the company produces are Russell Athletic, Jerzees & Cross Creek.

However, in Minneapolis small retailers stand to be impacted before industry giants like Nike, Sara Lee (maker of Hanes and Champion brands) and Russell.

"For us, therein lies the rub," says David Jennings, Chief Operating Officer of Minneapolis Public Schools, "the majority of the district's sports equipment is bought from local retailers that work through national distributors."

Jennings says that the policy is designed to give make local retailers aware of the labor conditions under which the goods they sell are produced. Since future contracts would exist between the district and one of these local businesses, the responsibility would lie with the small retailer to ensure that none of the goods they are selling to the district are made under sweatshop conditions. However, Jennings, as well as organizers, are quick to point out their sympathies for local businesses.

"We want to make sure that local retailers don't feel targeted. Our intention is to partner with them," explained Erickson of YO!

It is still unclear how local retailers will respond to the school board resolution. Upon hearing of the measure, Dave Turbitt, manager at Dave's Sport Shop in Fridley, Minnesota, expressed doubt about the policy's effectiveness.

"In theory it's good," he commented, " but I don't have any idea of the conditions under which the products we sell are made. Even the guy I buy from doesn't know where the products are made." Turbitt made clear that local businesses are going to need some guidance from the district if they are going to avoid purchasing apparel from distributors that use sweatshop labor. "Even a list would help," he added.

Spreading Like Wildfire?

Organizers believe that part of the sweat-free initiatives' appeal lies in their grassroots nature. "We are only going to change the sweatshop system-and it is a system-when enough people are aware and can find local ways to begin to change that system" says O'Shaughnessy of the New York State Labor Religion Coalition

"We are not going to delude ourselves into thinking this is going to change the entire garment industry," says UNITE's Hennefeld. "Institutional purchases of uniforms and sports equipment, however, represent a small but significant market. It amounts to billions of dollars of business per year."

Meanwhile, Tom Hayden is quick to point out that these billions of dollars are being draw from public coffers. He hopes that public awareness of the number of tax dollars being spent to subsidize sweatshops will result in broad support for these policies.

And while the system itself remains to be altered, it is clear in Minnesota that public awareness of the sweatshop issue is heightened, especially among students. YO! is already hearing from suburban Twin Cities high school students who want to push for the implementation of sweat- free policies in their own districts. "We even heard from some high school students in Denver," said Erickson.

Weiss is currently campaigning for the Minneapolis City Council to adopt a sweat free resolution similar to that passed by the school board. At the same time, YO! is in the process of finding interested students in Minneapolis' neighbor city, St. Paul, so they can begin the process of lobbying that school board to pass a sweat free resolution. National organizations are encouraging other cities and school districts to pass similar resolutions. If the past few months are any indication, adoption of these policies will continue to spread.

It is clear that the students involved with YO! take away powerful lessons from their experience. "If youth put effort towards something they can make it happen," says Tiphanie Copeland.

"I learned that we can actually change something," adds Ivy Klassen-Glanzer. "It's really inspiring."

Both also commented on the importance of education in the push to eradicate sweatshops. "There are many problems that people don't know about unless they are told," said Copeland. Klassen-Glanzer explained that the experience "opened my eyes to how education is the first step."