Solidarity not Charity: A Look at Transnational Student/Labor Activism

Students at the University of Washington protest unsafe working conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories as a part of the United Students Against Sweatshops’ “End Death Traps” campaign (http://bit.ly/1Thb2xy).

In my introductory blog post, I noted I would focus on “development from the bottom up,” coming from citizens, not undemocratic NGOs, state-run aid agencies, or Bretton Woods institutions. The self-determination of communities in underdeveloped countries can take power to dictate their own futures. But it would be naive to pretend this type of organizing is always possible when the working and agrarian classes in these countries are subject to unequal global power relations that clearly benefit Western corporations. So what does it take to help challenge these unequal global systems? One possibility is transnational student/labor solidarity.

Transnational student solidarity has taken a number of forms in the United States. From the New Left’s solidarity with anti-colonial revolutions in the 1960s and 1970s; organizing against both South African Apartheid and the current Israeli occupation of Palestine; and, transnational student/labor solidarity in the 1990s and 2000s. Student/labor organizing of this period arose simultaneously with the anti-globalization movement as a way to support workers in newly exploited economies by either mitigating the effects of globalization or struggling directly against the corporations which drive the global system. In this post, I will focus on two differing approaches to student/labor solidarity in the 2000s by United Students for Fair Trade (USFT) and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

Formed with the help of FairTradeUSA , an organization which helps certify fair trade farms and companies, in 2003, USFT was built as a student organization to help strengthen the growing fair trade movement in the United States. The goal of the fair trade movement was, and still is, to have corporations from the United States source a percentage of their production from small scale cooperative farms in the global South. These farms create more just living and working conditions than large scale agriculture. At the time, UFTC and FairTradeUSA worked together to help pressure brands to agree to source their products from fair trade producers, and in turn, when/if corporations agreed to the terms, a corporation’s product would receive the “Fair Trade Certified” (FTC) label (Wilson and Curnow 2013).

The other half of the USFT/FairTradeUSA organizing focuses on promoting the Fair Trade brand to consumers and Universities in the United States. The idea was that consumers would not only purchase Fair Trade products, but become politicized by choosing the more “just” option.  This is where it gets messy. In order to politicize these consumers and create a larger market share for fair trade farmers, USFT needed to convince consumers to buy products which were FTC. Thus, a large part of student organizing focused on building the Fair Trade brand names.  FairTradeUSA, a private, unaccountable NGO, appropriated student solidarity with farm workers to build the FTC, and helped corporations profit from their “fairwashed” products. In 2005, FairTradeUSA, asked students to encourage consumers to buy products from companies like McDonalds, Walmart, and Coke, which sold FTC products. Students claimed these companies had been involved in human rights violations abroad, and had (and still have) inhumane working conditions in the United States. Students did not feel marketing for Walmart helped the fair trade cause (Wilson and Curnow 2013).

The X-Files the x files frustrated annoyed x files

USFT faced the contradictions of working with the undemocratic NGO, FairTradeUSA,  which profited off the Fair Trade label, ignoring whether it benefited farmers in the global South. Neither students, nor farmers, had a say in which corporations earned the label or the terms of FTC conditions. In 2011, students were so fed up they declared a boycott of all FTC products, claiming FTC products were illegitimate and not representative of an authentic fair trade movement. A central demand of the boycott was to make the majority of FairTradeUSA’s board of directors ‘farmers, producers and workers, community and student activists, academics, and 100 percent Fair Trade businesses’ (USFT 2011; Wilson and Curnow 2013). FairTradeUSA has yet to hand control to these groups, thus leaving the “fair trade” brand in private hands. Today, USFT works with Equal Exchange to source fair trade bananas, and is organizing against the Trans Pacific Partnership.

The USFT case provides a lesson to student activists engaging in transnational labor solidarity. The importance of democracy in any organization is clearly central to developing effective, representative campaigns. Secondly, the organizing shows that commodification cannot occur with development from below, because commodities require that someone profits. And most importantly, USFT’s organizing shows the necessity of centralizing workers/farmers in any solidarity campaign to maintain workers/farmers interest.

A second example, which is both democratic and centralizes worker organizing, is the work done by

United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), an democratic organization which centralizes workers, provides a second example of transnational solidarity.

Formed in 1997, USAS grew out of the anti-globalization movement with the objective of supporting workers  subject to sweatshop working conditions in underdeveloped countries. Many of the companies who subcontract their production to sweatshops also profit from lucrative contracts with universities in the United States. The strategy behind USAS’ “International Solidarity Campaigns” is to use students’ unique position to pressure brands through universities by cutting contracts when workers report sweatshop conditions, “such as poverty wages, forced overtime, sexual harassment, union busting, and health and safety violations,” in global factories (USAS 2015). This organizing then links with workers struggling on the ground for better conditions through workers centers, unions, or NGOs. In this way, “transnational alliances enable [multiple] groups to exert leverage over the various links in the commodity chain” (Cravey 2004); students threaten the the legitimacy of brand names (Ibid.), while workers pressure brands in factories. In this sense, students provide leverage and make space for worker to define their labor conditions.

Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) acts as the intermediary body between USAS organizers and workers in the factory. As an independent observer of factory conditions, the WRC helps school administrators “sign codes of conduct for the producers of apparel bearing university logos” (Silvey 2013). Through years of struggle, USAS locals have pressured 183 universities (including Clark) to sign on to the WRC. By signing this agreement universities financially support WRC factory observations to prevent inhumane working conditions, and enable international solidarity around factory working conditions. The WRC is made up of a 15 person democratic governing body; USAS students, national and international labor organizers and NGOs, and affiliates of university administration. Additionally, a much larger advisory board, including national and international labor organizers and academics, help WRC organizers develop more inclusive strategy with factory workers.

So unlike FairTradeUSA’s undemocratic structure and self-interest in profiting off the FTC, which  students and farmers could not hold accountable, the WRC is built upon a foundation of student/worker democracy and has a self-interest in worker justice.

Multiple spaces of struggle can occur along the supply chain and empower students and workers at the global and local scale. For students fight exploitative conditions within university contracts i.e., subcontracting to global brands. The consciousness developed through sweatshop solidarity  also enables students to connect these conditions to low-wage workers on campus. For workers, the struggle is against the exploitative and inhumane conditions of the subcontracted factory i.e.the immediate conditions of their day to day lives. On a larger scale,  solidarity among students, workers, and labor NGOs enables transnational struggle against the proliferation of low-wage production. Global exploitative conditions necessitate global networks of struggle. The development of transnational resistance has the power to challenge neoliberal hegemony that is not possible when workers or students organize in isolated spaces.

The student/WRC/worker organizing model has resulted in sizable material gains for subcontracted workers in underdeveloped countries. First, as stated above, USAS has forced 183 universities, and the brands that make these universities’ logos, to agree to WRC investigations. Furthermore, Student solidarity helped Guatemalan workers win the first ever union contract in a maquila in the late 1990s (Cravey 2004); in 2010, USAS and the Honduran CGT [General Workers Central, a union] won a settlement with Nike, who agreed to pay $1.5 million in severance and a year of health insurance, plus hiring priority for 1,800 Honduran workers when Nike left the factory (Jack 2010); and in 2012, USAS and Indonesian workers pressured Adidas to pay $1.8 million in severance to 1,300 fired workers in Jakarta, Indonesia (Kong and Ortiz 2013). Most recently, USAS has been involved in organizing with Bangladeshi garment workers who face astonishingly dangerous garment factory conditions. In recent years, workers have experienced devastating, and preventable factory fires and collapses. One of the worst and most well known being the Rana Plaza collapse which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured more than 2,000 workers (Parveen 2014). From 2013-2015, USAS pressured brands to sign  the Accord for Fire and Safety, a binding agreement which allowed the WRC, local unions, and workers centers to take part in investigating unsafe factories and recognizing workers’ rights to refuse entry to unsafe factories (Rahman 2013). The fact that workers have a voice in the accord’s decision making process is an unprecedented win for Bangladeshi workers (Ibid). Additionally, USAS has played a pivotal role in forcing brands sourcing from Rana Plaza to pay compensation for workers and their families. The VF Corporation, which owns 30 brands such as, The Children’s Place  and Jansport,  refused to give to the fund (Arria 2015). Through student protest and occupations, USAS was able to force the Children’s Place alone to give $2 million (Shestack 2015).

A photo of the Rana Plaza disaster – Google Images.

USAS student/labor solidarity has been effective in pressuring brands to create more just working conditions and be held accountable for firing workers or mass murders. Despite large and amazing gains, the model has yet to create new opportunities for workers who don’t rely on employment from transnational corporations for Western consumption. James Heintz helps provide a broader analyses to address poverty and inhumane conditions in underdeveloped countries. Heintz notes, workers in developing countries don’t just need better working conditions, but “more and better jobs” which offer a number of high paying employment opportunities, not just  jobs from a single industry (2004). Heintz suggest that the anti-sweatshop movement can’t solely focus on immediate working conditions at the point of production. Instead, worker movements must address macroeconomic policies, such as social security protections, which extended to all people, not just those employed by a specific brand or in a specific industry (Ibid). This critique can also be applied to USFT’s work, which only focuses on creating market share for cooperative farmers. I think Heintz’s critique helps point towards a future for the anti-sweatshop movement. Yes, international labor solidarity must help workers struggle for broader social security services, if that is what workers want. But the only way to achieve these policies is through movement organizing. Transnational solidarity helps make space for worker organizing in underdeveloped countries. Organizing begins on the factory floor, but with solidarity, can grow and gain strength to impact macroeconomic policies. The Bangladeshi state’s response to factory collapses thus far has shown worker’s ability to make drastic changes in an industry.

International solidarity is necessary in combating the proliferation of inhumane working conditions globally, and building development based on justice. USFT and USAS have shown two strategies for helping further the struggles of workers and farmers in underdeveloped countries. USFT’s organizing focused on creating a larger market share for FTC  brands. But as we saw, this campaign was wrapped up in the commodification of student activism and worker conditions by building the FTC brand name. The case highlights the importance of focusing on worker struggle, instead of attempting to address issues of uneven development via further consumption. The USAS case highlights the importance of student/worker coordination in supporting worker struggles on the ground via international solidarity. This model strengthens individual student and worker struggles locally against exploitative conditions and privatization, while fighting neoliberalism globally through networks of students, workers and democratic NGOs. Thus, coordination, solidarity, and accountability provide a model for engaging in transnational organizing. Lastly, USAS’s model helps make space for workers to further their organizing and define their countries own development path with the strength of growing organizations. The continued struggle of workers and growing solidarity abroad could enable further worker involvement in deciding the fate of their future.

—————————-

In the interest of transparency, I myself am a member of USAS and help run a USAS local on Clark’s campus called “Activists United”. Get in touch if your interested in local and global labor solidarity! Check out local USAS efforts near you.

References

Arria, Michael. 2015. “Students Ask Why JanSport Parent Company Won’t Sign Bangladesh Worker Safety Agreement.” In These Time, May 15.

Cravey, Altha. 2004. “Students and the Anti-Sweatshop Movement.” Antipode 36(2).

Heintz, James. 2004. “Beyond Sweatshops: Employment, Labor Market Security and Global Inequality.” Antipode 36(2).

Jack. 2010. “Victory! Nike ‘Just Pays Is’; Students and Garment Workers Beat Sportswear Giant!” USAS.org, July 26. http://justpayit.usas.org/2010/07/26/nike-just-pays-it/.

Kong, Lingran and Mark Ortiz. 2013. “Victory in Nicaraguan Adidas Factory As Adiddas Garment Workers Stage Global Protest.” USAS.org, November 8. http://usas.org/tag/adidas/.

Parveen, Shahnaz. 2014. “Rana Plaza Factory Collapse Survivors Struggle One Year On.” BBC, April 23. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27107860.

Rahman, Fazlur Md. 2013. “Trade Unions Vital for the Safety Accords to Succeed: Scott Nova of Workers Rights Consortium Says.” The Daily Star, August, 23. http://www.thedailystar.net/news/trade-unions-vital-for-the-safety-accord-to-succeed.

Shestack, Miriam. 2015. “On 2-Year Anniversary of Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, Activists Announce Major Victory for Victims.” In These Times, April 24.

Silvey, Rachel. 2013. “Geographies of Anti-Sweatshop Activism.” Antipode 36(2).

USAS. N.a. “Garment Worker Solidarity.” Last modified 2015. http://usas.org/campaigns/garment-worker-solidarity/.

Wilson, Bradley and Joe Curnow. 2013. “Solidaritytm: Student Activism, Affective Labor, and the Fair Trade Campaign in the United States.” Antipode 45(3).

Workers Rights Consortium. N.a. “Governance.” Last Modified N.a. http://www.workersrights.org/about/govern.asp.