Students pressure University to join labor consortium

By Rachel Levine

A coalition of student groups kicked off its campaign to get the University to join the Workers’ Rights Consortium with a study break in the Reynolds Club last Wednesday. The coalition, which includes groups such as Students Organized with Labor (SOUL), the Feminist Majority, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), Amnesty International, and Queers and Associates, circulated a petition that currently has about 240 signatures.

The campaign plans to send a cross-group coalition to meet with administrators and urge the University to join the Consortium, a group that monitors the labor practices of companies that supply universities with logo clothing.

Currently, 121 schools nationwide are members of the Consortium, including the University of Illinois at Chicago and at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania.

While the University often draws criticism for its stances on social issues, the purpose of the campaign is to make the administration aware of new issues, according to Jonah Rubin, a second-year in the College.

The Workers’ Rights Consortium was founded in 1998 by United Students Against Sweatshops, according to Jamil Barton, a first-year in the College who serves on the Consortium’s national governing board. Barton said that the college clothing industry is a $3-billion enterprise. “As students,” he said, “we can use that to promote workers’ rights—to improve the conditions of factories.”

If the University were to join the Consortium, it would have to incorporate elements of the Consortium’s official code of conduct into its licensing contracts with clothing companies. Any clothing companies that manufacture Chicago clothing would be required to provide the Consortium with a list of the names and locations of each of their factories. In addition, the University would be forced to pay a yearly membership fee of $1,000 or one percent of gross licensing revenues, whichever is greater.

Fees paid by member colleges and universities compose 40 percent of the Consortium’s funds. The other 60 percent “is raised through grants from philanthropic foundations and the federal government,” according to the Consortium’s website. Contributors include the New World Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Barton said that when the Consortium receives an inquiry or an allegation about a factory from workers, local con-government organizations, or affiliate schools, it launches an investigation. The Consortium then interviews workers and management and reports on the state of workers’ rights in the establishment.

He emphasized that the Consortium simply reports on the states of different factories. The ultimate decision to opt out of a contract ultimately belongs to the University.

The University was actively involved in the debate over joining the organization during the 1999-2000 academic year. A letter from Arthur M. Sussman, general counsel and vice president for administration illustrated the intensity of debate on the issue. The letter, dated March 30, 2000 and addressed to the student body president and leaders of the Anti-Sweatshop Coalition, brings into question the appropriate role of the University in organizations that support political and social viewpoints.

“While the [Workers’ Rights Consortium] does propose to have a ‘monitoring’ function and plans to issue public reports, from the material circulated it also appears to be a group that intends to advocate—along with other groups such as unions, third world work groups and human rights groups—a prescribed code that supports particular social, political and environmental positions,” he wrote.

The Kalven Report, which the University adopted in 1967, prevents the school from taking positions on political or social issues and states that the University should act to support its own interests. Student activists throughout the years have confronted the administration only to be handed the Kalven Report as the University’s official position.

Rubi, however, is not convinced that the report will pose such a problem. He pointed out that many students have a “misconception of the top,” citing President Don Randel’s recent letter in the Chicago Magazine, which argued the need to reform the Kalven Report.

Sussman’s letter does not preclude the possibility of future involvement with the organization should it develop into a “monitoring group that provides objective information on working conditions.”

The University’s position on the Consortium seems to be the same now as it was in 2000—namely, that the University is already taking measures to ensure that its licensing agreements with clothing companies abide by fair labor standards. “We have an arrangement with Barnes and Noble whereby anyone who approaches them to sell their goods with our mark has to go through our legal office,” said Steve Klass, vice president and dean of students in the University. “Barnes and Noble is a member of the Fair Labor Association, which is an industry-developed version of the WRC. It abides by extremely strict rules.”

Klass said that a discussion between student activists and the administration would be beneficial for both parties, citing the fact that student activists seem unaware of the University’s past.