As some of you know, in recent weeks I have become actively involved in the University of Iowa’s chapter of Students Against Sweatshops, a nationwide organization which is calling for colleges and universities to adopt strict codes of conduct for the factories which make clothing which bears their label, and which is demanding that these institutions drop out of the group known as the “Fair Labor Association” (FLA), which purports to be a sweatshop monitoring group but which has yet to do anything (and, since it is made up mostly of the corporations which profit from sweatshop labor, is unlikely to do much more) and join instead the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a group which advocates third-party monitoring and full disclosure and the rights of workers to things (like, oh, say, clean working conditions, a living wage, workdays that extend to 14 and 16 hours, bathrooms and the opportunity to use them, and other such trifles which most Americans take forgranted–though the “living wage” part of that might be up for debate–but that’s for another time).
The administrations of a few schools, after months of debate and student activism, and 54 studenst being arrested at the University of Wisconson, have begun to comply with the recommendations of Students Against Sweatshops. Currently, however, 6 students at Purdue are on their 8th day of a hunger strike, to no avail, and 15 students here at the University of Iowa have taken over the administration building, planning to sit in for as long as it takes.
You may well feel that these actions are extreme, that we are youthful and uncompromising and that we have much to learn about negotiating and common sense and the way the world works. You may be right; I don’t know. But I do know that these actions have come only after months–nearly 10 months here–of meetings and forums and discussions with the administration, after letter-writing and reasoning and being nice. These actions have come, at the University of Iowa, after the UI’s own
Human Rights Commission Charter Committee on Human Rights, appointed by President Mary Sue Coleman to look into the matter, recommended exactly what SAS advocates, and Coleman (who holds the power over these decisions) decided not to comply.
I think we’ve been patient long enough.
Now I could give you all sorts of further details on the FLA and the WRC and why one is flawed and one is right, and why we can’t belong to both at the same time, and exactly the sorts of things that go on in sweatshops around the world and what corporations do to deny it, but I think that’s information that you already know, or which you can gain elsewhere. (If you want to hear more, do ask, or visit the UISAS website, www.uiowa.edu/~uisas).
I want to explain why it is that I have returned to activism, and to this particular issue, after some years of silence.
Recently I reviewed a collection of essays called Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture, edited by Chelsea Cain. In her introduction, Cain states that “There is just no way that you can escape being influenced by a childhood designed specifically to influence you.” My parents (as some of you know all too well) were certainly not hippies, but the sentiment rings true to me nonetheless.
I was raised to believe that education was just about the most important thing in the world. I was raised to believe that you read books and studied and talked to people not to get better SAT scores or get into college so you could get a better job so you could make more money. You read and studied and talked because this was how you formed yourself–by encountering what Socrates or John Milton or Thomas Jefferson or Henry David Thoreau (a lot of dead white men, I know, but worthwile ones) said, you could converse with some of the greatest minds history has known and thus shape your values not only from your own experience but also through the greater experience of a whole world history.
(I know; I sound hopelessly dated and idealistic. But I think this stuff’s important, so bear with me.)
I believed that universities, being the centers of such learning, were to the public conscience what Pericles says Athens is to Greece: a model and an education for the world. The university to me was not an ivory tower which barred others from entering but rather a beacon on a hill which beckoned them to come.
I have found, recently, that quite the reverse is true. The University of Iowa is not being run to be an education to the world (unless, of course, it wishes to educate the world to value profit over and above human life). It is being run as a corporation, a “knowledge factory,” as the said of Berkeley in the 1960s. As Mario Savio told members of the Berkely Free Speech Movement in 1964, and as I quoted to members of the sit in today,
if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr (or Beering, at Purdue, or Coleman, here at the UI) in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to have any process put upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University; be they government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!
In her first book, the memoir Dharma Girl, Chelsea Cain talks about how her mother, who had been raised in a conservative military family, ended up in the counterculture. “Her identity had been closely wed to what it meant to be an American and when what it meant to be an American suddenly included napalm and mortar fire, her self-concept began to unravel.”
My identity has long been tied to being a student, to being a scholar, to reading and writing and thinking and conversing and through all of these things trying to figure out the best way to live in the world. But if to be a student, to be a member of a university, means to study Charles Dickens and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and yet ignore the very same abuses when they serve to produce the clothes on our backs, if it means to live in a supposedly democratic society but be subject to the decisions of a university administration which is not elected but appointed, and who serve the interests of profit above those of human rights–well, I’m not sure I can be a student anymore. I know that I cannot keep silent.
Mario Savio’s speech continues:
There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even tacitly take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
I have reached that time. I ask you all to consider if you have, as well, and, if you wish, to call/fax/e-mail Presidents Beering and Coleman in the next days to let them know what you think. If you’re in Iowa City, stop by Jessup Hall tomorrow; teach-ins will be going on all day in conjunction with the sit-in. Additionally, there is a march as part of the National Student-Labor Day of Action, in memory of the 32nd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s death (as you may know, he was working with the labor movent in Memphis when he was shot). The march starts at 4 pm at Upper City Park and ends up at the IMU where, at 6:30, there will be a Student-Labor Forum to discuss sweatshops, the UI’s stance on them, and whatever else comes up.
President Mary Sue Coleman, University of Iowa
fax: (319) 335-0807
phone: (319) 335-3549
President Steven Beering, Purdue
You can also call Diane Nicks tomorrow (April 4th) at the University of Wisconson and ask her to drop all charges against the 54 students arrested there, who face heavy fines.
With thanks and in solidarity,
Laura E. Crossett