For the last three years, a new protest movement has swept college campuses across the country: the effort to end university contracts with, and investments in, firms that use sweatshops to manufacture apparel. So far, that movement has resulted in mass rallies, sit-ins, and other such actions not widely seen on many campuses in decades. But the campaign has mostly bypassed Seattle—until two weeks ago, when University of Washington President Richard McCormick officially chose sides.
In a letter to the campus group Washington Students Against Sweatshops (WSAS), McCormick declined to withdraw UW from the sweatshop monitoring group Fair Labor Association (FLA) and instead join the more stringent Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).
While the goals (as McCormick notes in his letter) of the two groups are ostensibly the same—to improve the welfare of Third World workers in the clothing industry—their methods are quite different. Industry representatives occupy six of the FLA's 14 board positions; there are no industry reps in the WRC. This FLA structure gives industry interests a near-veto power over items for which a majority is required, and an absolute veto where supermajorities are needed—as with the decertification of a plant or company not compliant with labor standards.
With the FLA, according to WSAS activist Sarah Orosz, companies selected to monitor labor conditions in alleged sweatshops are picked by the industry, and often have no working relationship with local NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). NGOs often do much of the work in identifying and criticizing particularly bad sweatshops. The industry determines which plants will be visited, and the targeted plants know in advance when such visits will take place. Sanctions against companies found in violation vary widely. The WRC also espouses a living wage standard for sweatshop workers, a demand notably missing from the FLA.
WSAS charges that a monitoring project controlled by industry—essentially, self-monitoring—is inherently corrupt and ineffective. McCormick, on the other hand, writes that "the verdict is still out" on the FLA, and he objects to the lack of industry representation in the WRC's leadership.
The stakes of this decision are potentially high. The University of Oregon is the only other major school in the area to drop FLA membership in favor of the WRC (nationally, some 47 schools have joined the WRC, including the entire University of California system). After the Oregon decision, alum and Nike founder Phil Knight, who has been one of the school's biggest contributors in the past decade, promptly pulled a pledged $30 million in gifts to the school's football stadium expansion. At two other schools, Brown University and the University of Michigan, Nike pulled multimillion dollar advertising deals for athletic department uniforms after the schools joined the WRC. Although Nike has a four-year, $3 million UW contract, McCormick says that did not factor into his decision.
This week WSAS turned the heat up a notch in its effort to get McCormick to reverse his decision: They held a sleep-in and rally at Red Square, with union support. The protest came on the heels of an ASUW vote in favor of switching from the FLA to the WRC.
WSAS organizer Eve Rutzick says that, unlike some campus issues where turnover is high, the WSAS is in this issue for the long haul. The sweatshop issue "is a link with the larger global economy and globalization, it's a goal, it's finite, it's attainable. . . . This is a moral obligation for the University of Washington, we're just doing the little tiny bit we can."
The occasionally liberal US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled May 4 that in at least some cases, use of pepper spray against nonresisting, nonviolent protesters is unconstitutional. The case arose from forest protests in Humboldt County, California, home of the infamous 1997 Frank Riggs incident in which police officers directly swabbed pepper spray into the eyes of locked down protesters—an act of unspeakable barbarity. Since Seattle is part of the Ninth Circuit, it can only be assumed that the wholesale use of chemical munitions during anti-WTO protests, often applied directly to the face and lips or sprayed indiscriminately from large canisters, is also "unconstitutional." If there is any justice, the lawsuits will be lining up now.
To our south, in Portland, police have long had a reputation for being less docile when it comes to citizens expressing constitutional freedoms. (The US Constitution—let's be clear—does not "give" rights. Governments don't give rights, they only take them away.) But even by Rose City standards, a police riot in response to May Day protests seems to have been over the top. A crowd of some 800 compliant demonstrators was, according to onlookers, corralled, sprayed, beaten, and otherwise abused for having the temerity to spill into three lanes of traffic instead of the "agreed-upon" one.
The current issue of the newsletter CounterPunch, moreover, contains this ominous report from the IMF/World Bank protests in Washington, D.C.: "The father of a Maryland state trooper told me his son was given the instruction that should things get dangerously out of hand, 'don't worry about anything; shoot to kill.'"
Since, by the standards of police, media, and elected officials, things got "dangerously out of hand" when a few windows were broken in Seattle, it's not hard to see where this is headed. It is, in retrospect, truly remarkable that nobody was seriously injured or killed during the WTO protests—and just as remarkable that nobody notices that it's the police who would have done the killing.
Media efforts to demonize the current generation of mass demonstrations have their effects on cops, too. May 4 was the 30th anniversary of Kent State, and it's useful to remember that at the time a majority of Americans approved of the murders of "unlawful" antiwar protesters. It's no stretch, in the current climate, to fear that somewhere in the US, sometime very soon, police are going to open fire on dissidents.