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Baseball Begins to Listen to Sweatshop Foes | The Nation

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Baseball Begins to Listen to Sweatshop Foes

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Major League Baseball's All-Star Game is supposed to be a breezy exhibition of the sport's brightest stars. It's also a place for baseball's corporate patrons to be wined, dined and reassured about the current state of the game.

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Derek Tyner
Derek Tyner is a freelance journalist living in Washington, DC.
Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports correspondent, is the author, most recently, of Game Over: How Politics Has...

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But at this year's All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, the party was crashed by a bull-headed group of about seventy activists determined to change the way the corporate game is played. The Pittsburgh Anti-Sweatshop Community Alliance (PASCA) held a spirited rally outside Tuesday's game at PNC Park followed by a march to Roberto Clemente Bridge. The procession was a celebration of something antisweatshop activists had never been able to claim with Major League Baseball: real progress.

For several years, PASCA has tried to get the Pirates to address the unfair working conditions in some of the factories where their apparel is produced. For several years they've been treated the way other National League teams treat the Pirates: like a doormat. But as the All-Star Game approached, PASCA's dogged work finally paid off.

A citywide debate was ignited when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recognized PASCA's work in a recent editorial that asked, "Would you mind if that Pittsburgh Pirates shirt you bought last week was sewn by a fourteen-year-old girl in Bangladesh during her twelfth hour of labor in a factory that pays her in pocket change?"

Baseball's initial response was to go on the attack. In a letter to Pittsburgh activist Tim Stevens, Ethan Orlinsky, senior vice president and general counsel for Major League Baseball Properties, said MLB was "proud of the accomplishments of our licensees [who] provide gainful employment to tens of thousands of people, in all cases in what we understand to be full compliance with all applicable labor laws" and asserted that "statements criticizing Major League Baseball and MLBP's licensees for engaging 'sweatshop' labor are without merit."

Orlinsky demanded that PASCA supply concrete proof of sweatshop abuses. They were ready. Antisweatshop leaders responded in writing, even offering to help set up a proper mechanism for monitoring and enforcing labor rights.

Bjorn Claeson, director of SweatFree Communities, a national network of antisweatshop organizers that includes PASCA, told us, "It's mind-boggling that someone representing Major League Baseball can make these claims at this day and age. They can listen to one of their own licensees, or probably several of their licensees, who are now publicly admitting to a series of chronic human rights violations."

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers' Rights Consortium, which monitors the production of apparel for colleges and universities, also says that there's no longer a dispute about "the central fact that there continue to be substantial labor rights violations in the supply chains of major sports apparel brands."

All of this wrangling served to keep the issue in the public eye. On the morning of the big game, the Pittsburgh City Council passed a resolution urging "companies and organizations that...have benefited from the continuous support of this city...to behave in a way...consistent with the morals and values of the people who provided them with the opportunity to succeed."

Baseball finally blinked. Larry Silverman, VP and general counsel for the Pittsburgh Pirates, wrote to PASCA promising to review the information and give it "proper attention and consideration...once the All-Star Game has concluded."

This was a real breakthrough for PASCA.

"We aren't against the Pirates, we are against the piracy of people's rights and people's humanity. When we put on a [Pirates] shirt, we want to know that it's a shirt we can wear with dignity because the people who made the shirt were treated with dignity. [We want] the Pittsburgh Pirates to be a leader, a league leader, not in hits, not in home runs, but a league leader for justice," said Stevens, who represented PASCA in the negotiations with MLB officials and who chairs the Pittsburgh-based Black Political Empowerment Project.

While the Pirates didn't go so far as to sign a pledge to develop and promote "sweat-free procurement and licensing standards," the confrontation with PASCA opens the door for Major League Baseball to follow the lead of colleges and universities that have agreed to adopt codes of conduct and independent monitoring of working conditions in factories producing their apparel. A Pirates spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

PASCA member Celeste Taylor is optimistic. "As the light shines in, the industry isn't going to be able to stand up to the pressure."

Antisweatshop activists can claim some real progress as a social movement. Claeson described it as "potentially a breakthrough in the antisweatshop movement" because the group is shifting its impact from campus to the major leagues. Some of PASCA's key members are alums of the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

"These campaigns are going to be successful when we figure out how to tap into the USAS alumni base, [which is] a group of people with a tremendous shared learning curve about this issue.... It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how to win this campaign at this point," said Kenneth Miller, a founding PASCA member from Pittsburgh." You do the same kind of bargaining, you do the same kind of creative organizing, only you're smarter and you're older and you have more resources.... We can have a direct and immediate impact."

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