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May Day Special: Deconstructing the biggest victory in anti-sweatshop history

,    /   May 3rd, 2010International, News

Last November, student activists won what the New York Times called the “biggest victory by far” in the history of the anti-sweatshop movement. Ten months earlier, Russell Athletic, the sportswear company, closed a factory in Honduras shortly after the workers unionized. In response, American students convinced 95 universities to sever or suspend licensing agreements with Russell. In so doing, they pressured Russell to reopen the factory, rehire its 1,200 workers and permit organizing at its six other Honduran plants.

In honor of International Workers’ Day, we interviewed student activists, workers’ rights advocates and university representatives to find out what made this campaign more successful than many others of its kind. We boiled down their observations to three key insights:

1. Set a Clear and Achievable Goal
From the outset, the students were clear about their endgame: Get Russell to rehire the fired workers and allow union organizing in all their plants. Although this seems like a straightforward goal, it would not have been realistic without four factors: 1) Russell Athletic wasn’t an obscure foreign entity, but a well-known American brand. 2) Unlike many companies that contract with third-party manufacturers, the company owned the factories in question. 3) The workers who had been fired remained active and their union intact (in other such cases workers have scattered to look for jobs). 4) Russell’s anti-union activities were extensively and credibly documented.

2. Look for the Leverage Point
Students recognized that, as bulk purchasers, universities wield major economic power over apparel companies like Russell Athletic. This strategy was developed by student activists in the 1990s who urged universities to require suppliers to comply with fair business practices.

Universities are also uniquely vulnerable to student pressure tactics. In addition to petitioning public officials and holding public rallies off campus, students employed creative tactics to focus the attention of university officials and broaden the appeal to other students: They held a sweatshop-free fashion show, brought Honduran workers to speak on campuses, delivered 1,200 balloons — one for each fired worker — to a university president’s office, and staged a photo-op in which a giant pair of scissors cut a giant contract to dramatize one school’s decision to cancel its purchase agreement with Russell.

3. Coordinate Your Allies and Stay Vigilant
The students made use of both traditional and new technologies to keep activists on campuses across the country focused, motivated and coordinated. These included Twitter, social media, weekly conference calls and national gatherings. And perhaps most importantly, student organizers kept up the pressure, often fighting exhaustion to ensure that many of their fellow students turned out to campus rallies.

The broader implications will depend on the degree to which the campaign encourages more students to monitor the business and labor practices of university suppliers. Campaign organizers hope it will cause other companies in this market niche to establish more progressive labor standards, lest they also be targeted. Students are also working to establish a “designated suppliers program,” in which companies would have to comply with ethical business standards to be eligible for procurement from participating universities.

The activists remain cautiously optimistic that Russell Athletic (which is owned by Fruit of the Loom) will live up to its commitments. However, they intend to keep a close watch to see if the company keeps its promises.

Photo: Poppyseed Bandits

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