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A Movement Declawed

There was a time, not long ago, when the word "sweatshop" seemed to be everywhere.

It was on posters along McCosh Walk, on the pages of campus publications, on television screens and even on the lips of Princeton's famously apathetic undergraduates.


But then, just as quickly as the University's anti-sweatshop movement had emerged to challenge unflattering stereotypes of both a generation and a college, it did exactly what its leaders had vowed it would not do. It disappeared.

The explanation of what happened is complicated. But it speaks to the difficulty of sustaining any kind of student movement in a decidedly apolitical climate.

Ironically, the demise of Princeton's anti-sweatshop movement came in a year when the issue has become the focal point of dozens of rallies and sit-ins at college campuses nationwide.

Princeton students were once at the forefront of the national movement. But not anymore.

"There are a lot of ambivalent feelings about the campaign at this point," said Brian White '00, a member of Students for Progressive Education and Action.

White was among the leaders of a 1999 rally in Firestone Plaza at which protesters demanded the University agree to labor standards for the manufacture of Princeton shirts, hats and other apparel.


In White's eyes, the anti-sweatshop movement at Princeton ran out of gas for a host of reasons, the most prominent of which was that the saga became more nuanced and difficult for students to follow.

Instead of a debate over whether Princeton should do anything at all to combat sweatshop labor, the question became what it would do. The latter question, student activists say, could be more important, but it is also more complex.

"The issues were simpler back then," White said of last year. This year's debate — which centers more on tactics and less on philosophy — "is not as sexy. It's just not as exciting."

Nevertheless, students at other campuses nationwide — from Yale to the University of Oregon — found a way to get people to pay attention. Through sit-ins, petition drives and boycotts, students at these schools focused the glare of the media on the competition between two organizations that both seek to establish and enforce standards for the conditions under which companies produce college apparel: the Fair Labor Association and the Workers Rights Consortium.

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Princeton belongs to the FLA, but many anti-sweatshop activists see the organization — which has a much greater degree of corporate involvement than the WRC — as a danger to the cause of reform.

"The FLA will destroy the potential for public outcry," White said. "The WRC is based on facilitating public outcry."

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Robert Durkee '69, the University's vice president for public relations, has been the leading defender of the FLA among college administrators nationwide, in part because he helped found the organization and currently serves as the lone college representative on the FLA's board of directors.

The appeal of the FLA, Durkee argues, is that it provides the cooperative approach needed to make sure Princeton clothing is not produced in sweatshops.

"If you think the answer here is to simply rely on the companies, you're probably going to be disappointed," Durkee said. "You're also going to be disappointed if you think this is something that government can address. And it's a mistake to think you can effect serious change through rhetoric."

The mention of rhetoric is a reference to the WRC, an organization that, in Durkee's mind, talks tough about ending sweatshop abuses but in fact would accomplish little of substance. Though students insist that the FLA's monitoring system allows companies too much participation in the inspection of factories, Durkee counters that at least the FLA has a system. The WRC has no effective way of monitoring, in part because it refuses to work with corporations, he argues.

The schools that joined the WRC this year, according to Durkee, mainly did so because they didn't know any better and only wanted to appease activists.

Durkee's ardent support for the FLA, White and other Princeton activists contend, is among the reasons why their efforts to force the University to consider the WRC have fizzled.

Admittedly, though, these efforts have been somewhat limited. At the end of last year, SPEAC decided in the wake of Princeton's entrance into the FLA that it would try to work within the channels of power to change administrators' minds — and to let a faculty-student committee that was appointed to study the issue do its work.

Some in SPEAC now see that decision as a serious mistake. The committee, several of SPEAC's leaders said, was intent from the beginning on rubber-stamping Durkee's position, and only paying lip service to SPEAC's position.

That is a charge that politics professor and committee chair Jeffrey Herbst flatly denies, insisting instead that his committee came to the issue ready to consider all options.

Whether the committee came to the issue with a prejudice or not, the report it released in April sided with Durkee. Instead of suggesting dual membership in the FLA and the WRC as the student activists had proposed, it advised the University to simply stick with the FLA.

Following the report's release, SPEAC was invited to submit a response. But it did not. The failure to react to a report that flew in the face of everything anti-sweatshop activists across the country had been fighting for was emblematic of just how far the anti-sweatshop movement at Princeton had fallen.

It was also indicative of what some said has been the real problem with the anti-sweatshop movement at Princeton — a lack of committed students. The organization was beset this year by an array of departures that decimated what had been a core group of about half-a-dozen activists last year.

Student organizer Dave Tannenbaum '01, for instance, decided to take a year's leave from Princeton.

The group's president last year, Amanda Fulmer '01, spent spring semester this year in Chile.

In the end, White was among the only student leaders from last year who was left on campus, and the committee's report happened to come out the same week his thesis was due.

Some in the movement are hopeful that with Tannenbaum's return next year, there will be a resurgence. But Tannenbaum said he is not sure he wants to continue working on the issue.

Despite an off-year for the campaign, Tannenbaum said he remains proud that Princeton's anti-sweatshop movement brought the issue to national prominence — which has allowed other schools to pursue it further, even if Princeton's notoriously apathetic students are no longer interested.

"At Princeton, there's never been an institutional student movement. It always goes in waves, and at other schools, it's not like that," he said. "The University is really good at co-opting student movements.

"It's a little bit disappointing, but it happens."