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US: Activists Resign from University Panel on Sweatshops

by Sharif DurhamsJournal Sentinel
February 2nd, 2000

Student activists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have split with university administrators on how to prevent abuse of workers in factories that make Badger-licensed clothing. The students say Chancellor David Ward is ignoring their concerns.

Three students resigned from a task force that advises Ward on how UW should use its economic clout to pressure clothing manufacturers to make factories clean, safe and pay a living wage.

The students object to Ward's announcement last week that UW-Madison would remain allied with the Fair Labor Association, which critics say is too heavily influenced by apparel makers.

In an informal vote in December, the task force, made up of the three students and several faculty members, laid plans to recommend that Ward pull the UW out of the Fair Labor Association and join another group, the Workers Rights Consortium.

But in what the students argue was a pre-emptive move, Ward told the committee in January that UW would remain in the Fair Labor Association, and would monitor how the other group was organized before making a decision to join it.

The Workers Rights Consortium, which was created last fall and will have its first national conference in April, includes three schools now, none of which is among the top licensers of college apparel.

The movement to support the clothing workers, which is backed by trade unions and student activists, has succeeded in pressuring some companies to disclose the locations of their factories. The locations were considered trade secrets.

University administrators have argued that the Fair Labor Association, which has the weight of the more than 100 colleges that are members, has the clout to make more changes.

"The key to working within this process is to stay at the table and work cooperatively, even when you do not agree with every decision," Ward said in a prepared statement. "My decision was based on thoughtful feedback I received from the members of the task force advisory committee, including the students."

Student activists nationwide are calling for their schools to abandon the Fair Labor Association and to join the Workers Rights Consortium, a new labor organization controlled by the activists which, they claim, puts more emphasis on teaching factory employees how to unionize.

Several of the universities that have been at the forefront of the anti-sweatshop movement have formed similar committees to get student input of the university's policies.

Although the tensions exist, at only one other school, the University of Michigan, have students abandoned the group advising school administrators.

Marc Brakken, one of the students who resigned from the task force, said UW-Madison activists intend to enlist the support of student groups, local churches and unions and other groups to make known their concerns about working conditions at these factories.

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