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A Student-Worker Alliance is Born

Liza Featherstone and United Students Against Sweatshops, Students Against Sweatshops (London and New York: Verso, 2002), 119 pages, paper $15.00.

MICHAEL D. YATES is associate editor of Monthly Review. He is the author of Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy (forthcoming from Monthly Review Press). He is also author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States, and Why Unions Matter, both available from Monthly Review Press.

Not long ago, the conventional wisdom was that capitalism was so completely triumphant that we were at the “end of history.” So strong and seemingly obvious was this view that many progressives embraced it. People’s imaginations shrunk and only the smallest and most local kinds of change appeared possible

What the conventional wisdom never understood, and what some progressives forgot was that capitalism is a system riddled with irresolvable contradictions, and these contradictions sooner or later generate opposition. Capitalism triumphant promises us unlimited possibilities, but it delivers more poverty, inequality, and underemployment. Capitalism promises freedom but gives us only the freedom to buy things. Work, the most basic of human enterprises, is done by “free” laborers but is performed under conditions of dictatorship. For the average worker in today’s world, the future looks pretty bleak: low wages, long hours, unemployment, and meaningless and mentally and physically debilitating labor. Not to mention racism, sexism, and a debased and life-threatening environment.

The gap between capitalism’s hype and its reality is so great that some people are bound to notice and be moved to do something about it. Sometimes, even those who live fairly comfortable lives notice and take action. Some college students in the United States, for example, became revolutionaries in the 1960s, and thousands more participated in the civil rights and antiwar movements. In France, in 1968, students closed many of the universities and almost succeeded in forming a student-worker alliance that might have toppled the government. In the world’s poor countries, universities have often been centers of radical ferment.

There are many events that may wake people up and make them think and act. For college students, it might be a war that threatens their lives and those of their contemporaries in other countries. It might be a part-time job, a trip abroad, an internship with a labor union or a social service organization, church activity, a teacher’s lectures, discussion with classmates, a speaker on campus, a film, or labor struggles on their own campuses.

A number of circumstances conspired in the 1990s to create a new student movement, one with great promise for promoting radical change. Liza Featherstone’s new book, Students against Sweatshops, examines what is probably the most important manifestation of this movement—the student-led struggle against sweatshops. Written in active collaboration with the United Students against Sweatshops, this slim volume is an interesting and thoughtful history and analysis of the antisweatshop movement. Along with Featherstone’s narrative, there are personal accounts written by thirteen student activists, and these add greatly to the book because they give us an idea of who the students are, and how they came to be so deeply involved in the lives of people whose living and working conditions are so far removed from their own.

Several factors help to explain the origins and development of the antisweatshop movement. First, there were a series of campaigns, exposing working conditions in the subcontracted plants of high profile companies like Nike and confronting media personalities like Kathie Lee Gifford. Independent labor groups, like the National Labor Committee, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, and the anti-Nike “Press for Change” group, begun by former AFL-CIO official Jeff Ballinger, organized campaigns to publicize the conditions of garment and other low-wage workers in both the rich and poor countries. The disparity between the lifestyle of people like Gifford and Nike CEO Phil Knight and the poverty of the workers, as well as the chasm between the price of the shoes and garments and the wages paid to the workers, resonated among many youth who began to see how crassly they were being manipulated by the slick advertisements for the products they had been duped into buying.

Second, the sweatshop workers themselves had begun to organize. One of the important insights gained by the student activists is that poor workers are not just victims of corporate abuse; they are active agents trying to find ways to improve their own circumstances. Fuerza Unida, for example, was a boycott organization formed by laid-off Levi Strauss workers in San Antonio, Texas. Workers in the maquiladora plants in Mexico have formed independent unions and conducted strikes and factory occupations in the face of brutal repression. A moving interview with several woman organizers and activists at the Kukdong garment factory in Mexico was conducted by four of the student contributors to the book. By observing first hand the rebellion of workers, the students began to see that they were not just helping poor people but engaging in a collective struggle with them, a struggle transforming their own as well as the workers’ lives.

Third, significant changes were occurring in the house of labor in the United States. The AFL-CIO, under the leadership of John Sweeney and his New Voices team, began to promote organization of new members as necessary for labor’s survival. A large number of potential new members were immigrants, and many of them worked in sweatshops. And some unions, often influenced by the antisweatshop students they took on as interns and summer employees in the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer program, began to see that the conditions of sweatshop workers overseas would have to improve dramatically if the capital flight that characterized the garment and other labor-intensive industries was to be halted. The AFL-CIO also dropped its virulent anticommunism, and this made it easier for unions both to hire progressive organizers and staff and to cooperate with more radical labor unions in other countries.

Finally, and Featherstone correctly lays stress on this, the colleges and universities to which the young future activists came to study had become thoroughly corporatized. They had become, in David Noble’s words, “sites of capital accumulation.” Universities were busy selling patent rights to large corporations and making deals with sports equipment companies like Nike. They were financing their corporate activities on the backs of the students, who saw more and more money spent on capital equipment (research facilities, for example) and administrative staff, and less and less spent on teachers and classrooms. Furthermore, they were contracting out food services and the like to vendors like Sodexho Marriott, which exploited low-wage and often immigrant labor and were engaged in such dubious ventures as the private prison business. And the universities themselves were using sweatshop labor in the form of underpaid and overworked graduate students, who taught most of the undergraduate classes in many departments. Students could see right in front of their eyes an obvious contradiction between capitalism’s promise and its reality. The colleges preached the purity of their academic mission but practiced something different—the unabashed pursuit of money and power.

In response to all of this, the students began to organize themselves into groups, on individual campuses and eventually in national organizations, to force their schools to stop buying sweatshop-produced clothing, to stop selling themselves to the corporations, to recognize the unions of their graduate students, to stop contracting with union-busting campus purveyors or force these purveyors to recognize unions, and to stop their own union busting when janitors, cafeteria workers, and other staff formed unions.

Featherstone devotes most of her book to the United Students Against Sweatshops, which was formally established in 1998 and which serves as a model for the new student movement. The first four chapters focus on the background to the group’s formation, its initial successes, its growing understanding of and struggle against the corporate university, and the backlash that made itself felt as soon as the groups began to have a real impact on the way corporate America does business.

In these chapters, there are several interesting discussions: the attempt by the schools and the federal government to co-opt the movement through the formation of Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the students’ response in creating the more aggressive Workers Rights Consortium (WRC); the students’ realization that their war against sweatshops in other countries had to be seen in light of the existence of sweatshops on their own campuses and throughout the United States; and the lead role played by neoclassical economists in the corporate-led backlash against the USAS. As an economist, I found this last point familiar. I always say that whatever the average person thinks is socially desirable, the neoclassical is ready to argue is not and vice versa. Following in the footsteps of economists like Walt Rostow (he of Vietnam War infamy), the economists think that sweatshops are good, a necessary stage on the road toward development, introducing backward peasants to work discipline and the wonders of the market economy. Thankfully, some progressive economists, like Robert Pollin and Stephanie Luce, took sharp issue with their mainstream brethren, taking the trouble actually to do some empirical work which nicely refuted the ideologically blinded neoclassicals, who would rather take the high road of abstract theorizing than the tougher job of empirical investigation.

The remaining five chapters take up issues that have occupied the student movement internally. The question of democracy has been particularly vexing as the organization has struggled with the conflict between the desire for consensus and universal participation and the need for leadership and responsibility for day-to-day decisions. As one activist framed the difficulty, “What is a leader? How should we be treating each other? If we don’t ask those questions, we create organizations that no one wants to be part of.”

Important problems have also arisen concerning race and gender. Racial tensions have appeared within the new student movement, not surprising given the fact that black and white students often come to college from different social circumstances and for somewhat different reasons. Black students have pointed out that the focus on sweatshop workers in other countries allows white students to feel righteous without acknowledging racially charged domestic issues such as the racist destruction of public assistance and the obscenely racist criminal injustice system. USAS members have been acutely aware of this issue and have engaged and cooperated with minority students on a number of campaigns, but as Featherstone points out, there is a long way to go before a radical and multiracial movement becomes a reality.

Gender has been a less divisive issue. So many of the sweatshop workers, as well as the student activists, are women that it would be impossible to maintain patriarchal relationships within USAS and have any success. This is not to say that patriarchy does not exist within USAS, but it appears to be much less harmful to the movement than it was in the 1960s. Featherstone points out that one of the outcomes of USAS struggles has been a recognition of the women who do the work as more than just victims. Women workers in both poor and rich countries have often taken the lead in fighting against both their employers and the governments that fully sanction their employers’ repressive actions. I have one criticism of Featherstone’s account of gender issues. She sometimes implies that there is something positive about wage labor in sweatshops, that this represents a major improvement over the dismally poor and patriarchal rural life endured by women before they come to work in the more urban sweatshops. This overstates both the responsibility of patriarchy rather than capitalism for rural conditions and the positive possibilities of wage labor, and it understates the importance of progressive struggles by peasants, including peasant women. It may be that sweatshop workers have better opportunities to organize, but little good will come their way until they do. Given the personal accounts in the book of abuse by sweatshop bosses and the vivid descriptions of the extremely harsh work regimen, the statement by one of the workers that she loves her company cannot be taken at face value.

Finally, Featherstone gives attention to the connections between the antisweatshop movement and the labor movement. Multiple alliances have been built between the AFL-CIO, both at the federation and individual levels, and the student group. In fact, in the summer of 2001, the USAS declared itself a “student/labor solidarity organization.” This is a very hopeful development, as it guarantees labor a committed cadre of student supporters and a pool of talented future organizers and staff persons. Still, the student-labor alliance is not without its pitfalls. The students must be careful to maintain their independence and not get co-opted by the more conservative labor movement. This is critical because the students are more likely to take a radical perspective on political and economic matters, and their independence might allow them to help move organized labor in a radical direction. USAS seems to be developing a more anticapitalist, as opposed to a merely anticorporate, analysis, in line with a significant segment of the large antiglobalization movement worldwide. The AFL-CIO and its member unions are still far away from this stance.

Liza Featherstone and the USAS activists, who give eloquent and moving testimony at the end of each chapter, have written a useful and stimulating guide to the development of what might prove to be a long-lasting and important component of the struggle to build a better world, which, in light of capitalism’s endemic problems, must be a socialist world.