Journal of the Plague No. 5: Students Against Sweatshops 20th Reunion

Students Against Sweatshops in Jessup Hall, from UE News. I am third from the left.

Today marks the second day of the 20th anniversary of a six-day sit-in by Students Against Sweatshops in the University of Iowa administration building, Jessup Hall. We were there after a year of research, coalition building, educating, and gathering support for our three demands—1) drop out of the Fair Labor Association, an industry sponsored “monitoring” group that did pre-announced factory inspections and then certified them as “sweat free”; 2) join the Worker Rights Consortium, a real monitoring group, and 3) draft a code of conduct for UI licensees to insure that all companies producing apparel and other items bearing the UI logo were required to adhere to basic human and labor rights. We gained endorsements from everyone from the UI Student Government to the UI Center for Human Rights to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and many in between.

We achieved the first demand on the first day of the sit-in. On the sixth day, at 11:30 pm, the UI suddenly became very concerned about our health and safety, and UI police officers raided the building, chained the doors shut, and arrested anyone who refused to leave voluntarily—ultimately five of us were arrested, charged with criminal trespass, threatened with assorted university disciplinary actions, and banned from Jessup Hall for a year. A year later, we finally got the UI to release its Code of Conduct, sort of—several companies, including Nike, Champion, and Jostens, were allowed to sign a “clarified” code that stripped collective bargaining rights from the code.

Twenty years later, we are still waiting for the UI to drop out of the FLA.

We were supposed to be holding a reunion this weekend—a time to reconnect, to visit the UI Archives, where much of the history of SAS is now preserved, and to hold a public event featuring talks from UI Archivist David McCartney on the history of student activism at the UI; John McKerley of the Iowa Labor History Oral Project, who has documented much of our movement through interviews with several of us who were there; representatives from the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Hall Workers on their fight to be recognized and win fair wages and conditions for their work; an update on the wildcat strike by graduate employees at UC Santa Cruz from Michael Marchman, who organizes graduate students in Oregon; and high school students from the Iowa City Climate Strikers. We’d have had tables from current activist groups and exhibits of SAS actions past. It would have been—and someday will be—a wonderful event.

Although our focus was on the garment industry, during its time at Iowa, SAS also fought for farm workers, prison workers, steelworkers, graduate employees, coffee growers, and so many other invisible laborers who make our world possible.

COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of our event along with many others, but I decided to record the introduction I planned to give as a message to all of you out their fighting for a better world.

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