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Penny Abeywardena

Head Behind the Headlines

New Rules for an Old Game

USAS pix.jpg

Did you know that spending 1% more on that Columbia baseball cap or NYU baby-T would mean doubled wages in sweatshops around the world? Well, that's the next game plan anti-sweatshop activists are putting into motion. A new campaign, Designated Supplier Program (DPS), promoted by anti-sweatshop college activists would "strip companies licensed to make college-logo apparel of their exclusive control over prices and decisions about where clothes are mad...(they) will have to produce increasing percentages of collegiate garments in factories where workers are represented and receive steady work for living wages." And this will cost the consumer no more than pennies per item.

How did college activists get this sort of influence over an industry that is estimated at $4 billion annually? It's organizations like the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) that have used extremely innovative and savvy organizing techniques to harness the purchasing power of college students to empower sweatshop laborers. USAS is a grassroots, youth run, student labor organization with about 200 affiliated high schools, colleges, and universities, and contacts on over 400 campuses. Founded in the late 90s as a campaign of UNITE! -they are now one of the most successful activist organizations in the US. USAS has been a leading figure in college sweatshop activism and in the last decade they’ve had a significant impact on rules that dictate an age old game of exploitation. One of their first campaigns shifted the codes of conduct under which college clothing is made to reflect principles such as freedom of association and dignified working conditions. Their campaign has led to "notable achievements, including the recognition of independent union in countries where such organization was previously unthinkable."

This summer USAS dispatched some of its activists to 12 countries to promote the "third wave" of change in the college apparel world. The enforcement of the DPS, which was passed last September, may just be the activist's most ambitious campaign to date. These rules empower the workers by "using contracts (between apparel maker and University) to achieve leverage over the process corporations pay to their subcontracted factories and requiring decent wages and long-term relationships." So far very large universities have signed on including Duke and the entire University of California system. The activists traveling to developing countries this summer are charged with the challenging task of meeting with workers, rights groups and unions to talk about the program, listen to their concerns and get feedback. This campaign will be a struggle to see through to its final success but USAS and its partners have committed their experience and passion behind these new rules that will shift power to the worker.

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Posted at 3:00 PM, Aug 25, 2006 in Labor | The Head Behind the Headlines | Youth | activists
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