Student activism nothing to protest

Despite stereotype, student activism effective and admirable

By Lexie Grove

The chants were yelled snappily, the signs were held confidently, and the speeches were delivered indignantly. Our cause was just, and we knew it. But apparently the significance of our action wasn’t as obvious to the Magnificent Mile shoppers as it was to us. “Get a job!” one man yelled as he angrily tried to bypass us on the sidewalk.

On April 14th, members of the group Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL), along with students from other campus RSOs, made the trek to the Niketown on North Michigan Avenue. We joined students from other Chicago universities and two Honduran garment factory workers, Gina Cano and Lowlee Urquia. We were protesting in support of Gina and Lowlee and their 1,800 fellow employees to whom Nike owed over $2.2 million in legally-mandated severance pay and other benefits.

If only this angry shopper had taken a minute to listen to our message, maybe he would have dropped the snide remark and thanked his lucky stars for his own job. After all, he was insulting people who had lost their jobs because Nike subcontractors who owned the Honduran factories, Vision Tex and Hugger, where these workers were employed, had closed them.

To him, and probably to many of those who saw us, we were just a bunch of two-bit hippies looking for something to yell about. We would have done better to abandon our ill-conceived convictions, get off the sidewalk, and set about looking for a more productive way to spend our time, these more responsible adults surely thought.

It turns out that we weren’t such a non-productive waste of space: On July 26, Nike agreed to pay $1.5 million in cash, to provide a year of health insurance, and to give priority training and re-hiring to the 1,800 workers.

Our rally was just one component of the Just Pay It campaign that was run by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a national student organization that fights labor abuses domestically and internationally. Students first at the University of Wisconsin and then at Cornell pressured their administrations to cut their apparel contracts with Nike. Nike’s Facebook and Twitter pages were bombarded with negative comments. A large demonstration, complete with the drop of a banner bearing the “Just Pay It” slogan, was held at Nike’s flagship store in Portland, Oregon.

The negative publicity was enough to cause the image-conscious Nike to reach an agreement with Central General de Trabajadores (CGT), the union representing employees of the two factories. This agreement represented a complete reversal of Nike’s previous stance; the company had previously denied even outsourcing production to Hugger and Vision Tex and had stated publicly that it would never pay the severance.

USAS’s history of successful activism played a large part in causing Nike to respond to the actions of the Just Pay It campaign. In November 2009, members of USAS forced apparel supplier Russell Athletic to re-open a Honduran factory that it had closed in a union-busting maneuver. Students won this victory, which led to the re-hiring of the factory’s 1,200 workers, by pressuring the administration of nearly 100 colleges and universities to cut their contracts with Russell Athletic. Nike surely had this precedent in mind when it decided to settle with the CGT after only two universities cut their contracts.

The implications of this victory are huge. The lives of 1,800 Honduran factory workers have been changed dramatically. One of the apparel industry’s leading companies has finally accepted responsibility for the actions of a subcontractor. And this happened primarily because of those two-bit hippies looking for something to yell about.

The point is simple: Student activism is nothing to mock or scoff at. The success of the Just Pay It campaign is proof enough that, in addition to taking up sidewalk space, students can fight injustice on a global level. As USAS so clearly understands, students have a special type of leverage that allows them to pressure such large corporate entities as Nike Apparel.

And if students can get a company like Nike to hand over $1.5 million, there is no telling what else we are capable of. Group of hooligans that we may seem to be, student activists can actually be quite strategic and organized. Running a campaign against a corporation like Nike certainly requires an incredible amount of planning. An important component of this planning is the ability to generate reasonable demands; also contrary to the stereotypes, student activists are capable of channeling whatever idealistic convictions we may have into goals that can actually be achieved. With an understanding of both their power and their limitations, student activist groups can reasonably hope to tackle worthy causes of all sorts.

Maybe student activists will never shed the unfair jobless-idiot stigma, but at least we can remember that historic $1.5 million and take heart from our numerous clear-cut victories.

Lexie Grove is a second-year in the College.