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Wisconsin Students Win Anti-Sweatshop Demands

by Joe Mingle |
April 1, 1999
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Madison, WI - Students scored a major victory in February, when a five-day sit-in at the administration building forced UW Chancellor David Ward to meet demands for the University to take a stronger position against sweatshop labor. At issue is the UW role in negotiating a Code of Conduct with 150 other universities and the Collegiate Licensing Company that seeks to ensure that college apparel is not made under sweatshop conditions.

Draft versions of the Code were widely criticized by students, Unions, and anti-sweatshop activists nation-wide. "The draft code was almost worse than nothing at all. It included few real protections for the workers but made the Universities seem like they were sincerely doing something," said Samantha West, a UW student and a leader of the student anti-sweatshop movement, locally and nationally.

The draft code failed to include assurances that factory locations would be released to independent monitors, that workers would receive living wages, or that women would be protected against sexual harassment and restrictions on reproductive rights.

Students at the UW, and at other Universities including Duke, Georgetown, and the University of Toronto, organized protests and sit-ins throughout January and February to demand the Universities' include these critical provisions in the final code. According to Jennie Capellaro, sit-in participant and member of Madison's Student Labor Action Coalition, "Because people organized and demanded more, we'll likely see a stronger code that could have a real impact on workers lives."

While the students' victory was mainly due to many months of organizing and militant action, community support helped push their struggle over the top. "Students and local Labor activists really worked together on this one," said IBEW Local 159 member, Joel Shoemaker. "It was great to see a real coalition of students and workers in action." Local Labor activists supported the students' demands through letter-writing campaigns, speaking out at public forums organized by the Chancellor, and turning out for numerous protests. "This was a victory for the students, Labor, and all the community activists who stood up for workers' rights," said Shoemaker.

Confident about the possibilities for building the movement, Madison activists hope to win even more significant battles in the future. Capellaro said, "We might not have changed the world, but we proved that when students, Labor, and the community band together, we can win!"