We the Students

By Chad Galts / November / December 1999
November 5th, 2007
In the spring of 1998 students and administrators sat down to negotiate a code of conduct for clothing manufacturers who do business with Brown. Students wanted to take an aggressive tack on potentially exploitive companies. They wanted the University to demand full public disclosure of companies' clothing-manufacturing factories, independent monitoring of these locations, and a guaranteed living wage for every textile worker. Risk-averse administrators wanted to do the right thing, but they were reluctant to get too far out in front of their colleagues at other schools. A toned-down code was passed, but students kept up the pressure.

Some victories came quickly. A year after adoption of the original code, President E. Gordon Gee announced that Brown would cosponsor and comply with the results of a living-wage study being conducted by the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the same time, Gee said that clothing companies doing business with Brown must make a full public disclosure of their manufacturing locations.

By this fall, students had claimed victory over sweatshops, though it was an imperfect one. The lack of a mechanism to monitor the code "was a big missing piece," says Bookstore Director Larry Carr, who oversees the University's contracts with apparel manufacturers. For that reason the University joined the Fair Labor Association, an apparel-worker advocacy organization. Unfortunately, the FLA has drawn harsh criticism since its inception. Critics claim the group, whose membership includes clothing manufacturers and retailers, cannot be trusted.

Another problem with the FLA, says Nicholas Reville, a junior from Worcester, Mass., and a member of the Brown Student Labor Alliance, is that it was not set up to deal with the concerns of universities. "We were tacked on," he says. "Brown is being put in a situation where we didn't have control over the monitoring process ourselves."

As a result, Reville and his colleagues from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a national organization, decided to form their own group - the Worker Rights Coalition. The WRC, which bills itself as "an alternative to company-controlled monitoring," has the same charter as the FLA but, according to the students, none of the conflicts of interest.

In October, Gee decided Brown would be the first (and so far only) university in the country to formally endorse the WRC. But he also refused to take Brown out of the FLA - citing it as a "credible (albeit still imperfect) system." Though Reville is happy to see the University pave the way into an alliance with the WRC, he says that "the best way Brown can make a difference is by withdrawing" from the FLA. "Brown can affect the apparel market," he contends, "by being a leader - not by looking for the best way to get clean hands." He may have a point. Several days after Gee announced Brown was joining the WRC, a USAS member from another university sent e-mail around the country suggesting that every USAS member buy a Brown t-shirt. Each could then wear it to the next meeting with university officials and ask: "Brown signed onto the WRC. Why can't we?"

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Related Issue
November / December 1999