Monday, December 6, 2010

Learning's Labor Lost?

It is always puzzling and disappointing when institutions that proclaim their allegiance to "progressive" principles seem to act in contradiction to them.  It is notorious, for example, that Whole Foods, which claims to care about the whole planet and your whole lifestyle, is not only expensive (that's why wags call it: "whole paycheck"), but viciously anti-union, and in many other ways, too, not so friendly to its workers, its customers, or the earth.  When CEO John Mackey—who by his own admission went from socialist to capitalist when his workers demanded higher wages—notoriously said that we didn't need a public health care system, many of his customers demonstratively abandoned him.

Even my own employer, Hampshire College, is not guiltless in such matters.  As I prepared to leave the office for Thanksgiving, this was the scene that greeted me in the lobby of my office building:

Students for the Freedom to Unionize had put up the banners to call attention to a festering source of controversy.  More than a decade ago (a couple of administrations earlier, I should emphasize), there were some very nasty fights over unionization. When workers expressed a desire to form a labor union, the proper thing to do, it seemed to me—from both the principled and political persective—would have been to welcome and facilitate the move. Instead, the administration and various administrators fought it by the most vicious means, even indulging in what amounted to red-baiting tactics. The rationale:  we are already progressive; we are more like a family than a business, so creating a union would "come between" administration and employees, breaking down our cherished sense of "community"; unions would make operations more expensive, thus hurting everyone by forcing cuts in positions or services.  It has left scars and pains that persist to this day.

It's hard to say which direction matters will take (and I should stress that I offer no judgment on any specific current cases, for I have no direct knowledge of any of them). In the meantime, though, there are simple steps that faculty can take to begin to effect change in a college's social policy. A nationwide group of professors in the social sciences founded the Faculty No-Sweat network to ensure that official college clothing articles are manufactured according to socially responsible principles. The announcement explained:
As you know, thanks to committed activism by students and faculty, almost every university and college in the country now has a labor code that applies to the brands (like Nike, Reebok and Russell Athletic) that make university logo clothing. Many of these universities have joined the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor rights organization that helps enforce these codes by investigating working conditions in factories around the world that make university products. Thanks to extraordinary efforts by the WRC, student activists, and faculty members like yourselves, we have recently achieved some astonishing breakthroughs:

· Last November, Russell Athletic agreed to re-open a factory it had closed in retaliation for workers’ decision to unionize – the first such reversal of a retaliatory factory closure ever to occur in the apparel industry in the developing world. Russell reversed itself because of an effective grassroots campaign waged by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), backed up by the WRC’s research and advocacy, which generated stories in most major mainstream media outlets .

· Just two months ago, Nike paid nearly $2 million that was owed to workers by two of its contract factories – the first time a brand has ever been compelled to assume financial responsibility for its contractors’ malfeasance. This, too, is the result of WRC’s and USAS’s efforts to draw public attention to Nike’s irresponsible practices.

We are proud that faculty played important roles in both of these campaigns – helping to challenge the misinformation circulated by the companies and their defenders, supporting the work of student activists on our campuses, and working to convince campus administrators to take a strong stand in support of workers’ rights. Our goal is to expand and strengthen this vital faculty involvement through the creation of the Faculty No-Sweat Network.
The next step, the letter continued, was to
help create brand recognition for a new apparel brand that is being launched this fall. Alta Gracia Apparel, named after the town in the Dominican Republic where the factory is located, is the first apparel brand committed to making its products in a factory

· where workers have union representation,
· where workers are paid a living wage (340% of the DR’s minimum), and
· where the WRC will have unfettered factory access to verify that all labor rights commitments are being met.

The Alta Gracia label is a brand of Knights Apparel, the largest maker of collegiate clothing. It shows that it is possible to make high quality, affordable apparel, while paying decent wages and guaranteeing humane working conditions. If this happens, it will raise the bar for the entire apparel industry worldwide. No longer will major clothing brands and their apologists be able to argue that sweatshop conditions are necessary to compete in the global economy.
You can visit the site and sign the pledge here.

Think about it.  At worst, it will cost you the shirt off your back (but only literally).
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