The Wisconsin State Journal

November 17, 2003

UW pushed on issue of sweatshops

by Karen Rivedal, Higher education reporter

A university committee wants UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley to put teeth into labor licensing policies designed to guarantee a living wage for workers in companies that make products using the university's name or logo.

"This is a human rights issue," said student Liana Dalton, a sophomore from Madison who is triple-majoring in math, nuclear engineering and Chinese. "As responsible consumers and citizens, it's our responsibility to make sure these issues are addressed and corporations are held accountable for their subcontractors."

Dalton took part in a quiet demonstration in support of workers outside Bascom Hall on Friday, shortly after the university's Labor Licensing Policy Committee voted unanimously to recommend the policy change. About a dozen demonstrators held signs and unfurled a large, multi-colored banner featuring Bucky Badger at work on a sewing machine below the words, "Emancipate Bucky. End Sweatshops Now."

Another sign, facetiously endorsing a career path as a "sweatshop associate," listed job perks including "tropical location, 10 to 15 hours a day, zero to 1 bathroom breaks a day. Obedient, docile women encouraged to apply."

The labor committee, made up of faculty members, academic staff and students including Dalton, is charged with advising Wiley on licensing issues, although their recommendations are not binding.

LaMarr Billups, a special assistant to Wiley, called the vote a "positive step" and promised he would forward the recommendation within a few days. Specifically, it asks Wiley to send letters seeking full wage disclosure from all 447 companies with contracts to produce trademark apparel and products.

That way, supporters said, UW-Madison could be sure that the companies are following the university's existing code of conduct, which states that licensees must pay workers at least the minimum prevailing wage in Wileyeach country where products are made. In most cases, that would mean better monitoring of the off-shore subcontractors in Central America and South America that many companies use to cheaply assemble the shirts, shorts, sweatsuits, caps and other products that serve as big cash cows for American universities.

The movement to seek specific wage information is part of a national campaign by United Students Against Sweatshops. A local chapter, known as the Student Labor Action Coalition, has pushed the issue at UW-Madison for the past few months, with a vote by the student government group, Associated Students of Madison, scheduled for this week.

Supporters said only a few universities, including Western Michigan and Indiana, have approved the policy or are close to approving it so far, but they hope the momentum will build with UW-Madison's help.

"If this happens, UW-Madison will really be taking an important leadership role in requiring responsibility of corporate licensees," said Professor Jane Collins, who chaired the committee and also attended the demonstration with academic staff member Wilt Sanders.

UW-Madison earned more than $1 million in royalties on its trademarked products in each of the last nine out of 10 years, with a high of $1.6 million in 2000 - a particularly good year for making a buck off Bucky because the university's football team went to the Rose Bowl and the basketball team made the Final Four, said Cindy Van Matre, UW-Madison's director of trademark licensing.

Billups praised student supporters of the measure as "knowledgeable, passionate and on top of their game," but he cautioned that making the policy change would be complicated in practical terms. For instance, many factories have multiple rate scales including a base wage, a piecemeal rate and a hourly rate, with different incentives often available for different kinds of products, he said.

"It's not an issue that you can lightly wade into," he said. "I'm bound and determined to look into it seriously and carefully."

Billups also said the issue of licensing may be taking on an extra urgency with students and others at UW-Madison this year because sports-apparel giant Nike has applied to be a licensee.

"With a nod of respect to the students' concerns, I can't treat (Nike) differently than any other applicant," Billups said. "But we're being cautious. I think we'll probably end up issuing a license to Nike on a one-year trial basis."

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