Sweatshop Followup

By Chad Galts / March / April 1999
November 19th, 2007
Some Brown students just won't give up: At a midday rally in February, members of several activist groups dragged a black-painted coffin emblazoned with the words Code of Conduct onto the steps of Faunce House. Protesters handed out flyers printed up with matching rhetoric: "They're KILLING our Code of Conduct! . . . Wear black to show your support!"

The code in question, passed by the University last April (see "Taking the Pledge, November/December 1998), mandates, among other things, that all companies producing clothes with the Brown logo on them pay their workers the local or prevailing wage, and provide them with a safe, humane workplace. While the original code was widely praised by students and administrators, it skirted several of the thorniest issues in the debate: independent monitoring of factories, apparel companies' public disclosure of their manufacturing sites, and the so-called "living" wage. The February rally was to remind administrators that they needed to strengthen the code in these key areas: "Students will not accept a code of conduct that doesn't stand for anything!" shouted one protester.

Student interest in these issues has intensified as the debate over sweatshop labor has spread from campus to campus across the country. In the weeks before the protest at Brown, students at Duke, Georgetown, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and four other Ivies staged protests and sit-ins to demand that their schools strengthen the provisions in a new, weaker code of conduct drafted by the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), the trade group that polices use of the logos of its 160 member schools. By the time of Brown's protest, the issue had gotten hot enough to attract the attention of ABC News, which sent a camera crew to the Green.

The protests at other schools also had another effect: to some extent, they worked. To settle with students who had staged a sit-in at the University of Wisconsin, for example, the school agreed in principle to the addition of a living-wage provision to their code. Since no one understands how to determine a living wage with any specificity, says Erik Christianson, a spokesman in Wisconsin's public affairs office, "we agreed to sponsor a study and pay for the re-search" to determine how a living wage is calculated. At the study's conclusion, if there is no "substantial disagreement on the research findings," a guaranteed living wage will be a part of that university's code.

At Brown, students claimed a different victory. In a letter to members of the Student Labor Alliance (SLA), the student group spearheading the war on sweatshops, President E. Gordon Gee announced that he would inform all licensees that the University is now "committed to the full public disclosure of specific names, cities, and street addresses of all factories" used in the production of Brown apparel. The living wage, however, was another matter: "Due to the fact that a living wage is not yet adequately defined," Gee wrote in the same letter, "I must insist that we, with our peer institutions, study this particular issue further."

"We're very happy with what we've gotten added to the code," says Suzanne Clark '99, a member of the SLA who organized the February rally. "But a living wage is not some radical thing - it's something we have to stand for."

Not all students agree. During the February melée on the Green, one circulated just outside the ring of protesters, trying to get the attention of anyone who didn't appear to be a student. "I just want to apologize for these people," he said to a Brown staffer who happened by the protest on the way back to her office after lunch. "I just want you to know that not all of us are like this. Some of us think this whole debate is ridiculous."

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March / April 1999