Kids today can't get any respect. First, their generation was
described as apathetic, stirred only by dreams of dot-com fortunes. Then,
when students stunned the world by joining turtle lovers and Teamsters to
shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last December,
they were disparaged as "flat-Earth advocates." Last week, when they
rallied against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in
Washington, and 1,300 were arrested in nonviolent protest, they were
labeled "imitation activists," filling the time between "spring break and
summer vacation, and between the last body-piercing and the first IPO."
At least Washington and Seattle captured headlines. For the most vibrant
student movement in years is roiling America's university campuses in
Here's the reality so many can't see. Activist, idealistic students
are in motion once again, seized of a morally compelling cause. Their
target, amazingly, is nothing less than the global corporation. They are
challenging the conservative free-trade agenda that dominates both major
political parties. Already, they are forcing global companies such as
Nike to scramble for cover. They've only just begun.
The most vital part of this growing movement is, perhaps, the least
noticed. On more than 175 campuses, students are calling global
corporations to account for their exploitation of workers abroad. They
are mounting demonstrations, hunger strikes, seizing administration
buildings, confronting university trustees and administrators, and
getting arrested by the dozens in nonviolent protests. The two-person
staff of the coordinating group, United Students Against Sweatshops,
can't keep up with the e-mail from students seeking to get involved both
here and abroad.
This movement is less than four years old. Its roots trace back to
1996, when human-rights advocate Charles Kernaghan focused national
attention on Honduran sweatshops in which young women worked at poverty
wages, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, to sew clothes for a
Kathie Lee Gifford fashion line. That summer, hundreds of university
students joined worker struggles in this country as part of the AFL-CIO's
Union Summer. Since then, groups of students have visited Central America
to witness how women their own age work and live.
The students had a compelling moral argument: Let's not support
companies that profit from exploiting workers abroad--and they acted on
it. They targeted university apparel shops that buy logo clothing from
global corporations with factories in Honduras, Indonesia and China,
where worker rights are trampled. The $2.5-billion collegiate
retail-apparel industry represents just 1% of the U.S. apparel market but
is key to the youth market. So students started calling for their
universities to enforce a code of conduct on suppliers.
University administrators didn't need the hassle but had no ready
response for the students. The companies realized they were in trouble.
Nike's swoosh symbol started being associated less with Michael Jordan
than with impoverished young women abroad. Nike and others circled the
wagons, enlisting a few human-rights groups to form the Fair Labor Assn.,
establishing their own code of conduct with the companies in control.
Company-paid consultants did inspections, with factories notified ahead
of time. Reports were kept private while the company "remedied" any
problem. The Clinton administration pumped money into the operation.
Relieved university administrators signed up.
But the students weren't buying. As Marikah Mancini, a graduate
student at Purdue, said, "The basic question was whether you were
empowering the companies or the workers." The result of the FLA, Sarah
Jacobson of the University of Oregon argued, "would be to hide, not
expose sweatshop conditions." The students insisted that any code of
conduct include protections for the rights of women and workers, require
a living wage and ban production from countries where workers had no
right to organize. Most important, the students demanded that companies
disclose the location of all factories. This would allow local church and
human-rights groups to do independent monitoring. Nike and others
So the students organized a Worker Rights Consortium to monitor
company practices, financed by 1% of the revenues produced by university
garment sales. It would sponsor independent monitoring by local
human-rights groups and make their findings public.
When university administrators resisted, the students upped the ante.
At the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin and
elsewhere, students took over administration buildings. At Purdue,
students camped out on the square, with several risking an 11-day hunger
strike. At the University of Wisconsin, Eric Brakken was told he didn't
have the student body's support. So he ran for student-government
chairman on a no-sweatshops platform and won. Even at the University of
Oregon, next door to Nike's corporate headquarters, students took over
the president's office until he agreed to join the WRC.
Last year, facing suspension of contracts with Duke and other
universities, Nike blinked and disclosed its factory locations. The other
companies soon followed suit. Forty-four universities have now joined the
WRC, including six Big 10 universities, Brown, Columbia and Georgetown.
Two weeks ago, the entire University of California system signed up,
issuing a code of conduct that demands a living wage of all contractors.
The students have identified an issue--the spread of sweatshop
labor--that cuts through the cant about free trade. They have found the
leverage to move not just their campuses, but global corporations--and
maybe even the entire debate about globalization. They are directly
challenging the laissez-faire assumptions of the last quarter-century,
demanding corporations be held to some basic moral standards of conduct.
Their focus on global corporations enlists the energies of many student
passions, from the environmentalists to pro-Tibetan activists. And unlike
the antiwar movement in the 1960s that was confronted by "hard hats," the
SAS is forging links between students and workers, and between the
environment and worker rights.
As President Bill Clinton and anyone active in the 1960s understands,
when students are aroused about a moral issue, they can change the
direction of the country. Already, even pundits who disparage the
demonstrators have begun to accept that worker rights and the
environment, food and workplace safety can no longer be ignored in the
But the students are making the larger connections. Last week, SAS
activists gathered in Washington for the march against the World Bank and
IMF, arguing that their "structural adjustment programs," in the words of
Erica Hiegelke, Smith College freshman, "press governments to attract
Western investment by denying workers fundamental, internationally
These are not Neanderthal protectionists, nor bored kids looking for
something to do. This student movement is internationalist, passionate
and on the rise. And it is raising questions that might well mark the end
of the conservative era of the last quarter-century.
Robert L. Borosage Is a Founder of the Campaign for America's Future
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times