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Florida State students protest sweatshop advocate

By Cecelia O’ Brien |
February 10, 2013
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FSU students protest sweatshops
FSU students protest sweatshops (Fight Back! News/Staff)
Sweatshop promoter Ben Powell hit with protest.
Sweatshop promoter Ben Powell hit with protest.

Tallahassee, FL - 25 students at Florida State University (FSU) picked up their picket signs to protest a pro-sweatshop economist who spoke on campus here, Feb. 7. The FSU Economics Department brought Ben Powell, a right-wing libertarian economist, to speak in favor of sweatshops and exploitative working conditions.

Before the event, student activists handed out flyers about workers’ rights abuses in sweatshops to about 75 students who showed up to the event. Many held signs reading, “Unions for sweatshop workers!” and “Fund public education, not exploitation!”

When the event began, the protesters packed the room with their signs and challenged Powell’s claims. The tension was palpable as many students vocally contradicted Powell during his hour-long presentation.

When Powell’s presentation concluded, students peppered him with pointed questions and rebuttals. Activists pointed out that U.S. corporations make tremendous profits off sweatshops with low wages and horrible working conditions. One student spoke about how sweatshops exploited workers and left countries, like Haiti, underdeveloped. Another held a sign about the November garment factory fire in Bangladesh that killed 112 workers and left another 200 injured, mostly women.

Student leaders spoke about the U.S. violently overthrowing independent governments. Some students learned of this earlier in November while protesting outside the School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia. The SOA is where the U.S. trains Latin American military death squads that kill trade unionists in Colombia and suppress progressive movements in other countries. These actions, argued one student, are carried out in some cases to benefit corporations that want sweatshop labor.

Powell was visibly frustrated and uncomfortable.

“Powell did not seem to understand how colonialism created poverty in most of these countries that rely on sweatshops for employment,” said Jessica Schwartz, an FSU student and organizer of the event. “More economic liberalization isn't going to fix the problems that neo-liberalism has created.”

FSU has a long history of fighting sweatshops. In 2002, United Students Against Sweatshops held a series of protests, culminating in a tent city on campus. The campaign succeeded in getting FSU administration to sign up with the Workers Rights Consortium, an anti-sweatshop watchdog group. Several former students involved in the 2002 United Students Against Sweatshops campaign attended the protest to confront the ugly reality of sweatshops once again.

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