National Catholic Register

Education

Colleges Feeling Heat Over Sweatshop Goods

BY Patricia Zapor

February 28-March 6, 1999 Issue | Posted 2/28/99 at 1:00 PM

 

WASHINGTON—The litany of schools could be a list of basketball powerhouses: Duke, Georgetown, St. John's, Holy Cross, Boston College, the University of North Carolina.

What they represent, however, is a movement on campuses that takes a cue from 1960s civil rights and anti-war protests, with the 1990s twist of having its grass-roots in cyberspace.

For four days in early February, two dozen Georgetown University students occupied the office of the university president, Jesuit Father Leo O'Donovan, negotiating for a more stringent system of ensuring that Georgetown logo merchandise is not made in sweatshops.

With the backing and guidance of apparel workers' unions and human rights groups like the California-based Sweatshop Watch, student organizers around the country spread the word that trendy baseball caps and sweatshirts with university logos may have been made at slave wages by underage workers in unhealthy conditions.

Citing the Church's teachings on workers' rights and social justice, students at Catholic institutions have been in the forefront of several anti-sweatshop actions.

Sixteen months ago, the Student Labor Action Coalition at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., picketed a Guess retail store in Boston, handing out leaflets about investigations into low pay and sub-standard working conditions at some Guess factories.

Since the summer of 1998, James Keady has been battling with St. John's University in New York over its contract with Nike, which has been criticized for using contractors that fail to meet international standards for workers' rights.

Keady, a graduate student in theology, quit his job as an assistant soccer coach at the university amid a dispute over his refusal to wear Nike logo clothing.

Keady first heard reports about Nike's manufacturing practices when writing a paper about the company's labor policies in the context of Catholic social teaching. In the paper, he raised questions about the morality of a Catholic institution accepting profits from a company that reportedly does not protect its workers' rights. He told Catholic News Service that St. John's contract with Nike reportedly pays the school $500,000 a year for seven years.

While he finds organizing students very difficult at a predominately commuter campus like St. John's, Keady is heartened by what he sees happening at other Catholic institutions like Georgetown.

“Students are actually holding their schools to their mission statements,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Georgetown protesters in February came away from their sit-in with an agreement that the university would adopt a more stringent code for companies producing apparel bearing the Hoyas' logo. Collegiate Licensing Co., which handles trademark licensing for about 160 colleges and universities, last year adopted a Code of Conduct that addresses some of the workers' rights issues the students raised.

But the Georgetown activists and their counterparts at campuses around the country want the code to not only spell out standards, but require universities to disclose the names and locations of factories making licensed products and to incorporate a standard for calculating living wages.

Georgetown freshman Cassandra Lyons said she participated in the protest at Georgetown because it was the right thing to do.

“We can't walk around in these sweatshirts that stand for Jesuit and Catholic identity when we know the conditions they are produced in,” she said.

Social justice concerns are causing a stir beyond the Catholic schools, as well.

The Georgetown protest followed a similar sit-in at Duke University in Durham, N.C., that ended with an agreement by the administration to rework the school's contract with Collegiate Licensing.

And as Father O'Donovan got his office back, administrators at the University of Wisconsin at Madison were facing a similar protest, also directed at the school's licensing contract.

He said he expects more sit-in protests and other actions over the next few weeks — at small Catholic colleges, big state universities and everything in between.

Tico Almeida, a Duke senior who helped create the nationwide organization, United Students Against Sweatshops, said in a phone interview that about 50 campuses are trying to pressure school administrators to tighten up on their licensing codes of conduct.

He said he expects more sit-in protests and other actions over the next few weeks. At small Catholic colleges, big state universities and everything in between, Almeida said students linked by e-mail and Web pages are enthusiastically fighting to keep their schools from profiting from sweatshops.

United Students Against Sweatshops was created after 11 college students spent the summer of 1997 as interns at UNITE, a textile workers' union.

Almeida, who was one of those interns, said before then only one school, the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, had adopted a code for its licensees. Now, while other universities work to enact codes or adapt their agreements with Collegiate Licensing, Notre Dame students are working to improve theirs.

Almeida said that like Collegiate Licensing's code, Notre Dame's has been ineffective because it includes no provisions for monitoring conditions at factories.