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Staying on the path

Kamaria Porter | Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The last decade showcased the largest outburst of student activism since apartheid. Because of the deplorable working conditions involved in the production of university licensed apparel, students from across the nation, along with labor and human rights activists, sounded an indignant cry at poverty wages and sweatshop conditions in factories that stitched and sewed their alma mater’s sweatshirts and assorted apparel.With the pressure and press spearheaded by students – mainly networking through United Students Against Sweatshops – administrators got the hint and took action. Officials from Notre Dame, Harvard, Ohio State, University of California and University of Michigan began initiatives to conduct investigations of university apparel factories in China, El Salvador, Korea, Mexico and several other developing nations. The Fair Labor Association (FLA) emerged in 1998 to monitor sweatshops. The FLA works with universities and accredits companies that adopt and enforce a Code of Conduct promoting basic labor standards, legal wages and collective bargaining. While this was a step in the right direction, activists were still displeased. The powers of contractors and owners of sweatshop factories to evade FLA investigations presented a serious problem in the integrity and mission of the organization and associated universities – including Notre Dame.In 1999, union and student leaders launched the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), which goes beyond the FLA in continued oversight of apparel factories, sustained communication with universities about working conditions, and by including a push for a “living wage” for laborers. Notre Dame joined the WRC with prodding from the Progressive Student Alliance while remaining a part of the FLA.Notre Dame set the bar for other universities in the anti-sweatshop movement. We were the first to formulate a Code of Conduct for licensed products, to refuse officially to contract with manufacturers in China and several other countries due to their anti-union behavior and other labor abuses, and to investigate the factories where our apparel was manufactured. Notre Dame’s Code of Conduct states the University “is committed to conducting its business affairs in a socially responsible manner consistent with its religious and educational mission.” The specific stipulations for manufactures – which resemble more the ideology of the FLA – include labor standards and required union neutrality. Only companies that allow their workers to organize freely into independent unions can produce Notre Dame goods.While we can question the University’s commitment to labor standards and collective bargaining in their own employment practices, our school’s history in the anti-sweatshop movement is admirable. The fight is far from over – labor abuses in the United States and abroad continue. In the pages of National Geographic, The New Yorker, and even our own Observer, the struggle of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to bring justice to the Florida tomato fields highlights the hidden suffering of farmworkers in the United States. A shameful legacy in American labor law, farmworkers are not protected under the already weakened regulations in place. The only rights agricultural workers have won came through difficult grassroots organizing. Following the example of Cesar Chavez, the CIW uses organizing and boycotts to raise their starvation wages, get basic labor benefits, improve working conditions and receive the dignity all workers deserve. Taco Bell profits from low farmworker wages and has a fortified position in the tomato market. If the company agreed to negotiate the labor conditions under which their tomatoes are produced, farmworkers would be able to thrive – not merely survive. While work continues to reform apparel factories, it is clear the next avenue for anti-sweatshop momentum is to end labor abuses in the agricultural sector. It is as important to know under what conditions the food we eat was produced as the clothes we wear. The same disconnected supply and blatant labor exploitation exists in fruit and vegetable fields as does in clothing factories abroad. Yet these agricultural labor abuses occur within our borders, in our communities. With campaigns against Taco Bell and Gallo of Sonoma wines, the strongest legs of these movements once again reside on college campuses. Notre Dame students have challenged the University again to evaluate its business associations and take action against the injustice within those parties. Taco Bell sponsors our football post-game show and assorted athletic events with funds accumulated by keeping farmworker wages low. Notre Dame has joined a financial chain that exploits workers and fails to take responsibility for its actions. I say: Notre Dame, remember your history and conscience. It is time for this University to step up once again on the side of economic and social justice. Agreeing to the Progressive Student Alliance’s requests is only a first step. Notre Dame must once again take the initiative in this offshoot of the anti-sweatshop movement by both addressing the Taco Bell issue and being a continued presence in future drives to improve the lives of all workers.

Kamaria Porter delights in being a single major of the History Department and Graff’s classes. This column is named for the 9th song on the album “Meteora.” She would like to finally thank the person who posted her first column to a certain e-mail list. Contact her at kporter@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.