from The Daily Cardinal, Tuesday, October 18, 2005

SLAC: UW can stop sweatshops

By Matthew Johnson

As we, the university community, come together to celebrate Bucky's pirate homecoming, let us take a minute to think about where the Bucky Badger T-shirts that are so ubiquitous this week came from. All UW-Madison clothing is made in sweatshops by individuals who in many respects are just like ourselves. Although it is impossible to fully understand the struggles of workers far away, there are parallels between their experiences on the factory floor and ours at the university.

Sweatshop workers, like us, are young people who have moved away from home in hopes of eventually achieving a comfortable and fulfilling life for themselves and their families. However, these workers are leaving families faced with the very real prospect of starvation and are now charged with the immense responsibility of supporting their loved ones on as little as 20 cents per hour.

The anxiety students feel as they await their admission letters from prestigious American universities is similar to that felt by workers as they seek employment at a garment factory. But for garment workers, the admissions office is a gate in a barbed wire fence. Rather than Welcome Week led by friendly tour guides, workers are oriented to the factory with a haphazard attempt to meet a quota in sweltering heat on unsafe machines under the supervision of armed guards and abusive managers.

Both students and garment workers would sooner spend time with friends than in class or at work. Yet as students sit through 50-minute class periods, factory workers around the world often work 16-hour shifts, doing endlessly monotonous work with no bathrooms breaks.

Because we attend a major university with enormous purchasing power, we have the ability to dramatically affect the conditions under which our apparel is made. As students, we cannot alleviate the poor conditions in each individual factory, we can provide workers' with the breathing room they need to from their own organizing bodies and improve their own conditions without fear of losing their jobs.

We, in coordination with students at 54 other major U.S. colleges and universities, demand that UW-Madison require an incrementally increasing percentage of Bucky Badger goods be produced in designated union factories where workers rights are respected. Additionally, we require that UW-Madison licensees pay the factory a higher price per good so that workers can realistically negotiate a living wage. By making these demands of our university, we create a market demand for garments manufactured in unionized factories, preventing brands from cutting and running to undermine the rights of workers.

On Sept. 28 the preceding demands were presented to Chancellor John Wiley. Although he has yet to reply, we maintain every confidence that he will agree to these simple stipulations, which, at no extra cost to the university, will empower workers around the globe to fight for themselves and finally throw off the chains of oppression.

This week, as we pool our resources, share our talents and abilities, lend our voices to cheers and chants, let us remember that there are workers across the globe doing these same things. However, as we cheer for school spirit, the workers are chanting for justice. What for us is a light-hearted celebration is for workers a struggle for their dignity and their livelihood. Let us be proud of our university, not simply because we win football games but because we are responsible members of the global community or because we use our staggering collective power not to exploit others, but to respect, love and empower all people.

Matthew Johnson is a member of the Student Labor Action Coalition. This op-ed was written in collaboration with members of his organization.

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