Sweating the big stuff

For anti-sweatshop campus agitators, post-'60s activism is trickier than bra-burning.


Tara Zahra
August 6, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It seems kids these days just don't know how to throw a revolution. The only picket-worthy injustice at Georgetown University is a slow Internet connection, reported Dolly McMamus in the Washington Post last winter. And from the dejected slacking of "Reality Bites" to the 20-somethings in fabulous apartments dominating today's primetime lineup, apathetic, apolitical and downright self-absorbed young people have become default pop-culture archetypes.

So when a movement protesting the use of sweatshops in the manufacturing of college apparel erupted on elite college campuses nationwide this spring, it's no wonder the press was surprised. The New York Times called it the biggest wave of campus activism since the anti-apartheid rallies of the '80s. Student agitators have been the subject of articles in Time, USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, Business Week, the Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor and the Nation. Critics have decreed that it's the '60s but smarter. Harvard law student Aaron Bartley notes that today's activists aren't torn apart by the infighting that plagued their parents' movements.

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Protests have now surfaced on about 100 campuses nationwide since 1997 -- including the notoriously unactive Georgetown. And unlike other perennial student issues or organizations -- Take Back the Night, for instance -- this one has gone beyond merely raising awareness. After sit-ins at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and University of Wisconsin at Madison, administrations have agreed to support stricter regulations for apparel manufacturers. New York University, Michigan and UNC have declined to join the White House-backed Fair Labor Association due to pressure from students and unions, who claim the organization of apparel manufacturers, retailers and human rights groups, formed to investigate sweatshop abuses, is too heavily dominated by industry. Nike recently responded to student pressure by agreeing to disclose its factory locations overseas, a key demand of the movement.

Meanwhile, a parallel campaign focusing on fair pay and organizing rights for campus workers has developed at Harvard, Brown, Fairfield, Stanford, the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins, where the first campus living wage measure was recently implemented. Moreover, activists are becoming increasingly connected, and are taking steps to insure that the movement doesn't lose steam over the summer break: This July, United Students Against Sweatshops brought together students from around the country for a conference on how students can better coordinate on a national level, and how they can spread the momentum to regions such as the Southeast, where sweatshop activism has not yet taken hold. Marc Cooper concluded in the Nation that students today seem "more prepared, more studied, even more radical in their economic critique than their SDS ancestors."

But while press compliments may be refreshing -- slacker-related epithets still ring in many a Gen X ear -- the evaluation of one generation through the lens of another reduces a nuanced phenomenon to headline fodder. Some of the more interesting contemporary sources of today's student activism, as well its potential limits and contradictions, have been overlooked.

In locating the source of the new movement, many pointed not to a legitimate interest in labor, but rather to an outside galvanizing force: unions. It seems the AFL-CIO's 3-year-old Union Summer, a program that has trained over 2,000 students in its five-week organizing institutes, has been credited with making labor an intellectual focal point on campuses.

"One of the great untold stories in the '90s is that Union Summer has created, from almost nothing, activism on campus to a point where labor issues are among the leading issues for students today," remarked a Columbia graduate student in the New York Times. In the Boston Globe, Robert Jordan implied that Union Summer had miraculously inspired students against the worst odds: "In essence, the AFL-CIO's program has achieved what many parents, and many colleges and universities, could not. It has given students something to believe in -- and something to fight for."

In fact, several deeper and more contemporary factors may contribute to students' "sudden" concern over economic injustice. For starters, many students have long been engaged in low-profile and largely unnoticed community service and activism. This has begun to influence students' career choices. According to the New York Times, interest in teaching as a profession among college graduates, including those of elite universities and liberal arts colleges, is at its highest since the early 1970s. Nationwide, the number of bachelor's degrees granted in education rose 33% between 1986 and 1996, compared to an increase of 22% in other fields. Applications to Teach for America and elite graduate schools of education are also rising.

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Contemporary international realities also motivate students to activism. Bartley, who has been at the center of Harvard's Progressive Student Labor Movement, says many of his peers have '60s radical parents. But they were incited to action not by their parents, but by a globalization unforeseeable 30 years ago. Many grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hearing about capitalism's Holy Triumph rather than the threat of the Evil Empire.

Today's students also have more international experience. According to the Institute for International Education, the number of students studying abroad has doubled in the past decade. In the past year alone the number of American students going abroad increased 11.4 percent. While that represents only 1 percent of the total college population, the percentage of students studying abroad reaches up to one-third at the elite colleges and universities where the sweatshop movement originated.

"A lot of students get involved in this work by studying abroad -- it puts the human face on the issue," said Rachel Edelman, a University of Michigan undergraduate active in United Students Against Sweatshops.

Unfortunately, acknowledging economic injustice in America has always been trickier for Americans, who tend to believe they are all middle-class citizens of a functional meritocracy. Identity politics has made recognizing privilege in academia a well-publicized rite -- but race, gender and sexual orientation -- rather than class -- have been more common starting points, partly because such movements usually stem from the initiative of a minority group. For working-class students who do make it to college, organizing and establishing a voice can be difficult. Moreover, many students from working-class families must squeeze academics in between shifts at part- or full-time jobs, leaving little time for sit-ins.

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But Bartley believes that what may have started as an international human rights initiative has indeed begun to turn inward, generating attention to labor and class issues on campus. "The connection was just a natural progression -- there are common problems, common root causes."

Of course, the real question for the future of the movement is where this self-examination will take the students. Ironically, success thus far has been based to some extent on the activists' very estrangement from workers. Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, a human-rights group advising some of the student protesters, observed in Time, "If a hundred students hold a protest, they get a page in the New York Times. If a hundred union people did that they'd be locked up."

It's no wonder that the AFL-CIO actively recruits at Princeton and that unions on campus are offering Harvard students use of their telephones and fax machines. How far can this movement go before students are forced to acknowledge the connection between their own bright futures and the dismal fate of workers? And then what?

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Students have come a long way if they're willing to occupy a building for their hall housekeeper's right to organize. But do the same students wonder about the 30 percent gap in college attendance rates between rich and poor Americans? Which students can typically afford to participate in programs like Union Summer, which typically offer a stipend, at best, to cover living expenses? Are students willing to attribute these inequalities to the same system that oppresses their campus workers, to question the belief that their admission letters were the fruits of merit alone? Are they willing to rectify these inequalities, even if it means risking their own privilege?

This is not to say that the movement is without radicalizing potential, that sweatshops shouldn't be closed or janitors shouldn't unionize, or that students shouldn't fight for any potential improvement in workers' lives. But unless students also recognize the connection between their own good fortune and the lot of the dining-service worker, the sit-in risks becoming just another extracurricular activity.

Of course, as extracurricular activities go, labor activism sure beats the stock investors' club, or playing computer games with a high-speed Internet connection. Who knows -- perhaps one day it will even rival bra-burning.

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Tara Zahra

Tara Zahra is a writer living in Germany.

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