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Duke Students Target Sweatshops

by Katherine Jenny Worboys


"The Gothic Wonderland" is a commonly heard phrase on and around the campus of Duke University. It defines, in a rather ambiguous manner, a way of life for many students residing on this magnificent campus. Although Gothic is simply a modifier, a reference to the campus' awe-inspiring architecture, the word Wonderland is a metaphor. It is meant to describe the real-world isolation detected by many students as they arrive on campus and forget that there is an entire world outside of the gates. They forget, or they ignore. Either way, the same effect is reached: we as students at this preeminent institution live in a Gothic Wonderland, where, for four years, nothing from outside the walls‹nothing from the real world‹may touch us.

Needless to say, student labor activism plays little role in the lives of most Wonderland inhabitants. We hold assemblies on the green in front of the Chapel to protest, in part, the harsh treatment of employees by students, but we make no real changes. We hold Student Government meetings on the subject and emerge with a plan to offer discounts at dining halls to all Duke staff members, but we do not ameliorate working conditions. We buy our Duke sweatshirts, our fraternity tee-shirts, and our ACC pennants, but we never stop to think about where they were made, or by whom, or for how much.

Student labor activism may, however, be one of the labor movement's greatest hopes. In his monograph, Global Village, Global Pillage, author, rank and file union member, and labor activist Tim Costello asserts that there is a war being waged in the United States. It is not a war about natural resources, arms build-up, or world supremacy, but a war of class, a series of battles fought each and every day between the working class and the privileged elite. And although these battles continue to rage, although one side of the trenches remains tended solely by the working class, it is an unwinnable war. In a conflagration where one side holds all of the money and power, there is little hope for a fair fight.

For these reasons a coalition must be forged between students and the labor movement, and the lack of student-labor activity in such settings as Duke University must be addressed. It was with this purpose that a fledgling group of students has formed on campus this fall to launch a chapter of The Sweat Free Campus Campaign. Entitled Students Against Sweatshops (SAS), the group was founded in August by Tico Almeida, a junior at Duke University and former intern on the national campaign. Almeida, too, has realized the necessity of bringing student labor activism to this often sheltered campus, stating, "Since it is very difficult for an individual consumer to force companies to end things like child labor, we're asking Duke, which is a major player in the garment industry, to demand change."

This group strives to see Duke adopt a Code of Conduct designed to regulate the companies licensed to produce Duke apparel.

There would be two provisions in this Code, the first of which would require full disclosure on behalf of all licensed manufacturers. Under this stipulation, companies such as Nike and Adidas would be forced to report to the University exactly how and where their clothing is made. They would be subjected to independent monitoring of wages and benefits allowed, hours worked, health and safety, and workers' rights.

The second provision would be the assurance of a living wage. There is often a large disparity between the legal minimum wage of a developing nation, and that upon which it is possible for a family to survive. The United Nations and the International Labor Organization have established a set of living wages for regions of developing nations, the majority of which lie far above the allowances earned by many employees. In Haiti, for instance, the government-enforced minimum hourly wage is set at 11 cents, yet the UN and ILO have established a living wage in this nation at 53 cents per hour. Many companies may thus operate completely within the law and still pay wages that do not approach a level that would allow their workers to provide adequate homes, food, and clothing for themselves and for their families.

By building awareness, the group hopes to draw attention to its cause and to place pressure upon the Board of Trustees to adopt its proposed resolution. SAS has addressed Duke President Nannerl Keohane personally in a letter as yet officially unacknowledged, and its members have organized "Operation Re: Code of Conduct," in which the student body was mobilized to bombard Keohane with e-mails supporting the SAS' goals. SAS members have circulated several national petitions, and attended an October 4 Durham event, "The National Day of Conscience to End Sweatshops and Child Labor." In this affair sponsored by several local organizations at Northgate Mall, demonstrators handed out leaflets, picketed, and promoted awareness among mall patrons and employees. Their presence in the mall was cut short by a security escort and the demonstration moved to Ninth Street where they continued leafletting and performed skits about sweatshops.

Although there has been no official word from University Administration, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask has privately approached the group's leaders to assure them that there will be a Code of Conduct introduced within the next few months. Accordingly, SAS has now changed its focus from promoting campus awareness to developing a feasible code and the manner in which it may be enforced. Although this acknowledgement is far from a victory, SAS members are energized by it and are looking ahead to the changes that it may make in University policy. They can also look back with pride at the steps they have made toward building a connection between the labor movement and the student community at Duke University. According to member and Duke senior Jessica Salsbury, "College is a place where you question things, and Duke has a responsibility to help instill these values through example. Duke should represent the values they want their students to have."

  Katherine Worboys is a Duke history major and was a media coordinator at Union Summer. The Duke Chronicle provided some of the information in this story.  

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