Student Activists Sharpen Skills at National Anti-Sweatshop Conference

Corinne Gaston

On February 21, 18 USC students traveled to Miami, Florida for the weekend, but not to tan on the beach or drink piña coladas. These students were attending the 16th Annual United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) National Conference, a national organization run completely by students for the purpose of campaigning for workers’ rights on school campuses and abroad. These 18 students are all members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE), a USAS affiliate group dedicated to the protection of workers’ rights both on USC’s campus and around the globe. SCALE is currently campaigning to get the USC administration to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium, the only factory monitoring organization that is not funded by a clothing company.

The conference was held at the University of Miami, where the USC students found themselves surrounded by 300 fellow student activists from all over the country; some had driven over 30 hours to get there. They had all traveled to the USAS conference to learn organizing tactics, to empower themselves and to coordinate with other students running workers’ rights campaigns such as the national “Badidas” campaign to get universities to cut ties with workers’ rights abuser Adidas.

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The conference began Friday with group strategy meetings for campus worker rights campaigns and the USAS campaign against sweatshops. USAS offered six caucuses throughout the conference for marginalized identities: people of color, queer, trans, working class, women and mixed race. Those who identified with the caucus identities could attend to share personal stories and discus how their identities affected them, particularly within social justice movements.

Later that day, everyone organized outside for an action: the 300 students marched out of the building where the conference was being held, proffering signs and yelling chants like, “Workers’ rights are human rights!” and the call-and-response, “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” Students performed a flashmob dance in a dining hall, met with approval by the staff, and marched to the office of University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala to demand a union for campus workers.

After the direct action, participants settled into the first round of workshops which covered strong meeting facilitation, effective event turnout, recruitment of new members and what was essentially Unions 101. One particularly valuable workshop was on collective liberation, an ideology rooted in Lila Watson’s famous quote, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

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In addition to caucuses, actions and workshops, students were treated to guest speaker Tim Waters, the National Political Director of United Steelworkers Union. Students were also truly moved by the individuals on the workers’ panel who came from all over the world—Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Indonesia—to share their stories of working conditions in factories and  how they had become involved in organizing. One woman from Honduras, who once worked in sweatshop conditions where managers called workers names, forced them to work overtime and refused them restroom use, has now become the president of her union. Two of the workers, Aslam and Heni from the now closed PT Kizone factory in Tangerang, Indonesia, were on tour as part of the Badidas campaign. They came to describe their struggle of demanding rightful severance from Adidas and how the company unlawfully pays workers with food vouchers, but also to share their inspirational words. Aslam, whose factory manager had once hired a thug to kill him, led the conference-goers in a cheer and stressed how much student action and solidarity helped the cause.

The fight for workers’ rights around the globe can sometimes feel dissociative; you can agitate for the rights of factory workers for years and yet never meet them. The workers’ panel gave students the opportunity to hear firsthand about the injustices they were working to end.

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“Being able to meet these fighting workers definitely pumped me up and motivated me to push forward as much as I can,” said Samantha Castillo, a SCALE member who is majoring in neuroscience. “There is a difference between hearing about issues and actually seeing them. Now that I’ve caught a closer encounter, I’m more than ever willing to do whatever it is for all of us to work together for a better future.”

Castillo, along with other SCALE members, feels more drive after the conference to fight for WRC affiliation, so that workers around the world making USC apparel will finally be treated as true members of the Trojan Family.

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