Taking the Pledge

By Chad Galts / November / December 1998
November 22nd, 2007
Quick: what do the Brown Surfing Club, the Young Communist League, Brown for Life, the Fantasy Gaming Society, and the Society of Women Engineers have in common? They all signed a statement authored last year by the Student Labor Alliance (SLA) demanding that Brown "take a moral stand" against sweatshops. Until agreeing to the statement - which was sent last November 21 by e-mail to E. Gordon Gee when he was still six weeks away from arriving on College Hill - the only thing the groups seemed to have in common was that their members were all Brown students. Here was an issue either so meaningless or so vital that it united surfers and socialists, Christians and video-gamers. What was going on?

"Be it recommended," Daniel Massey '98 and Suzanne Clark '99 of the SLA wrote in their e-mail to Gee, "that Brown University condemn the use of sweatshop labor in producing clothing using Brown trademarks." No T-shirt, hat, sweatshirt, or jersey bearing the Brown logo should be manufactured, they argued, in a factory staffed by workers who are underpaid or who endure inhumane working conditions. Even before becoming president, Gee had declared Brown "a private university with a public purpose." Here was a coalition of students asking him to convert the rhetoric into action. Gee accepted the challenge. By mid-January, Massey, Clark, and a handful of other SLA members were negotiating with Brown Bookstore Director Larry Carr, who is also chief protector of the University's name and logo, and Dave Walbaum, director of marketing for Brown athletics. The group described to Carr and Walbaum codes of conduct that had been recently passed at Notre Dame and Duke, codes requiring clothing manufacturers to provide certain minimum wage and safety standards for their workers. The students, however, were asking Brown to go beyond those minimum standards and break new ground in requiring manufacturers to guarantee their workers a "living wage." Where the Duke code requires workers to receive paychecks that "match or exceed the local prevailing wages," the SLA and its fellow petitioners asked for "a wage that meets the basic needs of workers, plus money for discretionary spending." The group also wanted to guarantee workers the right to join unions, as well as health benefits for a worker's entire family, including same-sex partners.

Carr and Walbaum listened carefully to the students' proposals before responding. "We told them," Carr recalls, "that a lot of this stuff just isn't going to happen." To their credit, he adds, the students also listened carefully, and in a turn of events that perhaps would not have occurred so quickly in Brown's political climate twenty-five years ago, they agreed to compromise their demands in the name of getting something done. "It was a very healthy discussion," Carr says. "I was very impressed that these kids understood what it would take to come up with a workable code." Not wishing to begin from scratch, Carr wanted to make the Brown code of conduct exactly the same as Duke's. "We really wanted the living wage provisions," says Suzanne Clark, "but the question became, do we want to fight for every single little thing and have it take years - or not at all - or do we want to get something passed? With student groups, every semester is an upheaval. We needed to get something, fast."

On April 13, the University announced it was passing a code of conduct without the living wage provisions. The SLA held a celebratory rally on the Green that featured two textile workers from the Dominican Republic who'd been touring the country describing miserable conditions at a clothing factory in their country. The factory used to manufacture, among other things, Brown baseball caps; the workers said they received eight cents per cap. "I come here so that you may know that we are sacrificing our lives so that you can wear these hats," one of the Dominican workers told the crowd. The other tearfully thanked the students on behalf of the children who, he said, had died as a result of working conditions at their factory. "Their bones are moving in their graves because you, the students of Brown, have passed this code of conduct." Students chanted "Gordon Gee, not Kathie Lee!" a reference to television personality Kathie Lee Gifford, who was criticized in 1996 for the child labor used to make clothes bearing her label.

Despite the self-congratulatory mood surrounding the adoption of Brown's code of conduct - or perhaps because of it - one question remained unanswered: would the code make any difference?

Every anti-sweatshop code passed by a consumer group is deliberately vague about how a clothing company's labor practices will be monitored. Once a school such as Brown, for example, has obtained assurances from its suppliers that they conduct business in a humane and equitable fashion, it is hardly in a position to conduct surprise inspections of clothing manufacturers. "You're not going to see me get on a plane to go look at some factory in some corner of the world," says Larry Carr. At the moment, all the University can do is take companies at their word.

Students and labor activists hope that if enough hoopla is created over the issue, companies will comply with codes simply to avoid the competitive disadvantage created by bad public relations. Universities are particularly good pressure points for this approach because they want to be perceived as doing good, and because so many of them sell so much logo-enhanced clothing. The University of Michigan, for example, sells over $100 million a year of college-related merchandise; nationally such merchandise is worth more than $2.5 billion. Brown grosses about $1 million selling such apparel every year, making it a relatively small force in the college marketplace.

Debora Spar, an economist and associate professor at Harvard Business School, calls the publicity-generating approach taken by students and labor on this issue "the spotlight phenomenon." "It's a process that's occurring in - and in some respects because of - the global economy," Spar says. "Special-interest pressure groups are increasingly able to publicize the bad behavior of corporations. And it's a lot easier to make a university squirm than a corporation."

According to Charles Kernaghan, the executive director of the National Labor Committee (NLC) and the man who began the campaign against Kathie Lee Gifford, students are also particularly effective mouthpieces on the issue. "When students became involved," he says, "the public-relations operations of companies took a big hit. They couldn't turn on the students and call them a special-interest group in the same way they could when they pointed to us."

Monitoring compliance with codes of conduct is a concern of Rosa Hunter '99, a member of the SLA who last summer was an NLC intern in New York City. She "did a lot of research to find students in different schools," she says, and tracked down the conduct codes that had been passed by universities around the country. After consolidating the information, Hunter and her fellow interns sat down with Kernaghan to draft a kind of ideal anti-sweatshop code similar to the one first proposed at Brown. The draft tried to come to terms with the issue of independent monitoring.

Most observers agree that the best way to ensure compliance with the codes is for enough schools to pool enough resources to retain an independent company to rate manufacturers on their labor practices. The leading candidate for the job is the Atlanta-based Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), which manages licensing for more than 150 universities around the country and which helped Duke draft its code-of-conduct policy. The CLC has been working for a year on a monitoring proposal aimed at companies who have agreed to sign a pledge to disclose working conditions in their factories. Brown, because of its low-volume apparel sales, does not contract with the CLC to market and monitor its products, but, like most schools, it is watching the company try to work out the best and most cost-effective way to monitor compliance with its code.

Officials at the CLC believe that its size will force manufacturers to take seriously its interest in their factories' working conditions. "We hope to achieve some economies of scale because we have 160 member schools," says the CLC's general counsel, Bruce Siegel. As a baseline, companies manufacturing products for schools affiliated with CLC will be required to report on their own internal monitoring, he says - a solution that is unlikely to satisfy many labor groups. "The watchdog groups would not view as credible a situation where you're relying on the licensee as a source of information on labor practices," Siegel admits. For this reason, the CLC is also working on a system for random monitoring visits to apparel factories. So far, however, this system is still in its planning stage.

Rosa Hunter, Suzanne Clark, and other members of the SLA fear that the time it will take to set up a credible monitoring system may rob Brown's anti-sweatshop policy of its momentum. To keep the attention of their fellow students on the issue, they brought Charles Kernaghan to campus to speak at Faunce House on September 29. A few days later, on October 2, the SLA strung a clothesline across the main Green as part of a demonstration asking that the University amend its code to include a living wage provision and tougher enforcement standards.

Carr, meanwhile, is trying to run the bookstore. "Licensing-related tasks are supposed to take up 5 percent of my time," he says. "Things have gotten a little out of whack." Over the summer, Carr mailed a copy of the new code, along with a letter of intent companies must sign, to each of the University's 100 licensees. All but one signed the letter, and the one company that did not sign canceled its arrangement with the University because it wasn't selling enough Brown clothing anyway. So far the SLA has been successful at keeping discussion of the code alive - although some students are having second thoughts. After the SLA's clothesline rally, the letters page in the Brown Daily Herald included a letter from several juniors: "The SLA seems to think our community is easily manipulated," they wrote, "that we will automatically support any proposal that is superficially and viscerally pleasing, but nevertheless deeply flawed." The next day a member of the International Socialist Organization responded: "The SLA's work is vital and deserves unconditional support. Ending sweatshop labor will not solve the problem of poverty overnight, but it is an important step in the right direction."

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November / December 1998