Victory over Sweatshops!

by Bob Hemauer |
April 1, 2000
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Madison, WI: Student occupation of Bascom Hall.
Madison, WI: Student occupation of Bascom Hall. (Fight Back! News/Staff)
A photo of the sit-in at Chancellor Ward's office.
Sit-in in Chancellor Ward's office. Students put bike locks around their necks to prevent removal by the police.

February 20, 3:30 a.m. - Under a banner that read, "The Whole World is Watching," fifty-four students, workers and concerned community members slept in the office of University of Wisconsin Chancellor, David Ward. They occupied the chief administrator's office to protest university links to sweatshop labor. The peaceful scene was shattered by the approach of over 60 police dressed in riot gear, with billy clubs at their side and tear gas rifles ready.

Four Days Earlier: Occupation Begins

The occupation of the chancellor's office started 4 days earlier, on February 16. Seven students entered the office, demanding a meeting with Chancellor David Ward to discuss the University's ties to sweatshop labor. A cop pulled the shades and locked the doors, isolating the seven from the 300 other demonstrators that had marched into the building.

Two hours later, six armed police officers entered the building carrying large bags of tools. Representatives of the protesters approached the police to find out what they were up to. The police responded with pepper gas. "They sprayed us without warning," said one victim of the police violence.

As the cloud of pepper spray filled the hall, students and workers sat cross-legged and sang, "We Shall Not Be Moved." The occupiers were determined to stay until the Chancellor addressed their demands.

UW T-shirts, sweatshirts and other logo apparel are made in sweatshops. The University receives millions of dollars each year from this exploitation. The protesters' demands, focused around the monitoring of factory conditions where UW logo apparel is made, came out of five years of coalition work between students, unions and the community.

Over one year ago, the administration agreed to pull out of contracts with clothing companies that didn't provide a living wage, give out locations of their factories, or provide guarantees against the exploitation of women in these factories. As of the deadline on February 12, none of these conditions were met.

The occupiers also demanded that the University pull out of the corporate-controlled Fair Labor Association (FLA), and fully affiliate with the Worker's Rights Consortium (WRC). The Worker's Rights Consortium is a monitoring group that focuses on the right of workers to organize, and on developing relationships with worker groups where the clothes are made.

By 8:00 p.m., February 16, Ward bowed to community pressure, saying that the UW would stop participation in the FLA, becoming the second university in the country to make this move. Two days later Ward announced the UW's "provisional" membership in the WRC, but the protesters wanted an explicit commitment to worker's rights. They vowed to stay until such a commitment was made. Ward made it clear that the protesters would be allowed to stay through Monday.

54 Arrests

Chancellor Ward broke his promise. The riot cops entered Bascom Hall early Sunday morning, February 20. Despite the intimidation tactics, the crowd of sixty, including seven protesters locked to each other with U-shaped bicycle locks, was in good spirits.

As the police counted down five minutes before they would start arresting people, the crowd sang "Strangers in the Night" and "I Feel Good." Police, attempting to remove people from the office, applied pain holds. By 5:30 a.m., only the seven protesters U-locked by the neck remained in the office. The police said that they had no experience with the U-lock tactic, and were unsure how to remove them. One protester who was U-locked stated, "It was horrifying, they had to put wet towels on our heads to prevent the sparks from starting us on fire."

By Sunday night, at 9:00 p.m., all 54 protesters were out of jail, some after being kept in isolation.

The occupation was the biggest civil disobedience on the UW campus since 1971. The community has vowed to keep pressure on the administration to end its ties to sweatshop labor.