Wednesday, March 13th marked a special day in recent USC history. Three members of the Student Coalition against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) met with President Nikias inside the President’s Dining Room located in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, becoming the first student group to have a meeting about policy changes with President Nikias since he began his term on August 3rd, 2010.
SCALE met with President Nikias to discuss USC affiliating with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent factory monitor that would work to ensure that the workers producing USC apparel sold in the bookstore would be treated justly.
SCALE is a student organization dedicated to fighting for the rights of USC workers to have fair, safe and just workplaces, alongside workers on USC’s campus and workers overseas making USC apparel. Formed officially in 1997, a group of students started the group after initially seeking to simply inform themselves on the issues faced by on-campus janitors and dining hall workers. When it became clear that the University did not treat these workers as fairly as it could, the students took action and ensured that dining hall workers received a fair contact with the University for the first time. The students also supported worker actions such as walkouts and strikes, and worked on campaigns outside of USC, such as supporting the United Farm Workers and helping to improve the working conditions for people making clothing in the LA Garment District.
However, in 2000, SCALE expanded its campaign when members learned that USC apparel that is sold in the bookstore is all made in sweatshops. A sweatshop is a factory with conditions that violate human rights. A sweatshop is a factory where workers are not paid overtime, are underpaid, sometimes not paid at all, are subject to verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, and unhealthy working environments. A sweatshop is a factory that is unsafe for workers, where the windows are barred, exits are blocked or locked, fire extinguishers are nonexistent, and managers order workers to keep working if the fire alarm goes off just so they can meet their quota. SCALE recognized that no members of the Trojan Family – no human beings – should be subject to such conditions.
For the past 18 months, SCALE has been campaigning for USC to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), the only independent factory monitoring organization that is not funded by corporations, and have requested a meeting with President Nikias numerous times. Currently, the monitors USC relies on to inspect its factories are not up to par; one of USC’s approved factory monitors, UL Responsible Sourcing, went in and certified two factories for fire safety. Months later, the safety violations of both factories led to deadly fires that killed over 400 workers.
Inspectors for the WRC go into the factories and make sure the conditions meet certain standards and write up comprehensive reports which are made public. SCALE’s campaign has included bi-weekly letter deliveries to Nikias’ office, an anything-but-sweatshops clothing fashion show last semester, a rally outside of Nikias’ tailgate on November 3rd and a vigil for the 400 lives of Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers that were lost in a factory fire last fall.
The three SCALE members: Julia Mangione, Julia Wang and Sarah Newell were hopeful and grateful going into their meeting with President Nikias. They went in with the goal of showing President Nikias that students, faculty and community members all support the WRC initiative and this is a great opportunity for USC to not only uphold its own Code of Ethics but set a higher standard for protecting the rights of workers making USC apparel.
While the three students met with President Nikias inside, more than 40 students marched from the Finger Fountain to Tutor Campus Center brandishing individual signs as well as a banner that read “Sweat-Free ‘SC Coalition” to support SCALE. Representatives from the Panhellenic Council, A Community Place, MEChA, EAO, MSU, Women’s Student Assembly, Interfraternity Council, QUASA, Helenes, Chicanos/Latinos for Health Education (CHE) and Chicanos for Progressive Education (CPE) – many of which are official members of SCALE’s Sweat-Free SC Coalition – were all present as well as others.
The students planned on gathering silently in the hallway outside the President’s Dining Room, but were stopped outside the main entrance by DPS officers and were barred from entering the Tutor Campus Center. So instead, the students gathered outside the side entrance near Moreton Fig, with the hopes that President Nikias would see all of the support students had for USC affiliating with WRC. The students were informed after the meeting that President Nikias had indeed seen them and had decided to leave the President’s Dining Room via another exit as to not encounter them.
When Mangione, Wang and Newell emerged from the meeting, they gave a brief recap of the meeting before heading to Bovard Auditorium where they gave their full reactions to the meeting.
“They really did give us the space to speak unlike other administration meetings we’ve had,” said Julia Wang. “I think that one of the things that stuck out to me the most, unfortunately, was that he told us it was not a matter of how many students want the WRC, it’s a matter of resources.”
“He also told us the university as a policy does not sign petitions,” said Julia Mangione. “And I helped remind him that we are not asking him to sign a petition nor to take a stand on a radical issue but rather uphold the university’s own workplace code of conduct – their own policies and that this is the way that they can finally start to solve the failings of their corporate monitoring system.”
Nikias did not agree to affiliate with the WRC during the meeting nor did he fully commit to SCALE’s deadline of 14 days.
“So members of the sweat free coalition were so grateful to have this opportunity to meet with President Nikias,” said Sarah Newell. “He really gave us a lot of time to speak and to have an honest discussion which was really fantastic…however, he wouldn’t commit to any sort of time frame which is frustrating for us as students because he really didn’t seem to understand the urgency of the issue.”
SCALE representatives said they will still expect a response by their 14-day deadline: Wednesday, March 27th.
“The students on this campus will not stand to be ignored on any of the issues that these student organizations are bringing forth today. It is not just about the WRC, it is about each and every issue that each and every one of you is addressing today. Student voices will be heard on this campus,” said Wang, addressing the students and student group representatives that came out to support. “We extend the invitation to you all to be here when we receive his response and to figure out where to go from here to make sure this university really listens to its students.”