Anti-sweatshop activists at universities nationwide scored limited victories this week when the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin at Madison announced they were withdrawing from the Fair Labor Association, a White House-backed labor monitoring organization.
But so far, activists at Penn and Wisconsin have failed to achieve their main goal — to get their schools to sign on to the Workers Rights Consortium, a monitoring group that some anti-sweatshop protesters view as more stringent than the FLA.
Meanwhile, Princeton's anti-sweatshop activists are continuing their campaign to convince the University to join the WRC.
"The WRC is there to publicize the most information possible," said Brian White '00, a member of Students for Progressive Education and Action. "The FLA is much more entrenched."
But Vice President for Public Affairs Bob Durkee '69 used a public forum on the FLA Wednesday to reaffirm the University's commitment to the FLA. He also expressed reservations about committing the University to the WRC.
"I want to be sure that there is something to be gotten [from the WRC] that we can't get from the FLA," he said.
Durkee appeared at the forum with Michael Posner, the executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Both Durkee and Posner affirmed their faith in the ability of the FLA to address anti-sweatshop activists' primary concerns, and they fielded questions from administrators and students, many of whom belong to SPEAC.
Laura Kaplan '02 suggested that the University consider joining both the FLA and the WRC.
Durkee responded, "The WRC seems to take the position that it is not willing to work collaboratively with the FLA."
For his part, Posner presented a slightly different perspective. "Rather than exploring whether it will be an either/or option, it would be important to see how the WRC can complement the FLA," he said.
All six of the schools that belong to the WRC also belong to the FLA, White said.
At the forum, Posner spoke of the inauspicious origins of the FLA. In August 1996 a group of unions, corporations, consumer rights advocates and nongovernmental organizations assembled at the White House "basically for a photo-op and a Rose Garden ceremony," he said.
The group then spent more than six months forming "an industry-wide code of conduct and considering monitoring principles," he said. But because of what unions perceived to be irreconcilable differences, they walked out during the process, he said.
According to Posner, the unions believed that corporations should not operate factories in countries where the government prevents workers from unionizing. He said none of the corporations were willing to agree to such a proposition, noting that this could effectively limit factory operation to western Europe and North America.
Furthermore, he said workers are not eager for American corporations to withdraw their factories, despite their inability to organize.
Posner said that the other primary issue of contention between unions and the FLA was that workers be paid a living wage. "There's nothing that approaches consensus or clarity on what constitutes a living wage," he said.
This issue is at the top of the FLA's agenda but members are not willing to commit to a living wage without more detailed information, he said.
In addition to these concerns, activists are worried that corporate representatives on the FLA board may frustrate attempts to publicly disseminate as much information as possible.
Students also fear that the FLA's monitoring system is not stringent enough. "We just don't think the FLA sets high enough standards," White said.
In response to the eight day sit-in at Penn — during which protesters occupied President Judith Rodin's office — the school announced its withdrawal from the FLA Sunday.
On Wednesday, 20 students at the University of Michigan took over the office of the dean and demanded that the school sign on to the WRC, the Michigan Daily reported.
The same day, students at Wisconsin occupied the office of the university chancellor, meeting with some resistance from security guards who used pepper spray, according to the Michigan Daily.
But that same evening, the university's chancellor announced that Wisconsin would withdraw from the FLA and consider joining the WRC, according to the school's Office of News and Public Affairs.