“We have the university by the balls,” said Nati Passow, a University of Pennsylvania junior, in a meeting with his fellow antisweatshop protesters. “Whatever way we twist them is going to hurt.” Passow was one of thirteen Penn students–the group later grew to include forty–occupying the university president’s office around the clock in early February to protest the sweatshop conditions under which clothing bearing the U-Penn logo is made. The Penn students, along with hundreds of other members of United Students Against Sweatshops nationwide, were demanding that their university withdraw from the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an industry-backed monitoring group, and instead join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an organization independent of industry influence, founded by students in close cooperation with scholars, activists and workers’-rights organizations in the global South.
At first the administration met the students with barely polite condescension. In one meeting, President Judith Rodin was accompanied by U-Penn professor Larry Gross, an earring-wearing baby boomer well-known on campus for his left-wing views, who urged the protesters to have more faith in the administration and mocked the sit-in strategy, claiming he’d “been there, done that.” President Rodin assured them that a task force would review the problem by February 29, and there was no way she could speed up its decision. She admonished them to “respect the process.”
Watching the Penn students negotiate with their university’s president, it was clear they didn’t believe any of her assurances. They knew there was no reason to trust that the administration would meet one more arbitrary deadline after missing so many others–so they stayed in the office. After eight days of torture by folk-singing, acoustic guitar, recorders, tambourines and ringing cell phones, as well as a flurry of international news coverage, Judith Rodin met the protesters halfway by withdrawing from the FLA. (To students’ frustration, the task force decided in early April to postpone a decision about WRC membership until later this spring.)
The most remarkable thing about the Penn students’ action was that it wasn’t an isolated or spontaneous burst of idealism. Penn’s was just the first antisweatshop sit-in of the year; by mid-April students at the universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa and Kentucky, as well as SUNY-Albany, Tulane, Purdue and Macalester, had followed suit. And the sit-in wasn’t the protesters’ only tactic: Purdue students held an eleven-day hunger strike. Other students chose less somber gestures of dissent. In late February the University of North Carolina’s antisweatshop group, Students for Economic Justice, held a nude-optional party titled “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Sweatshop Clothes.” In late March, in an exuberant expression of the same principle, twelve Syracuse students biked across campus nude. The protests were a coordinated effort; members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which was founded three years ago and now has chapters at more than 200 schools, work closely with one another, a process made easier by the many listservs and websites that the students use to publicize actions, distribute information and help fuel turnout.
Though the largest, most successful–and before Seattle, the most visible–thread of the movement has focused on improving work conditions in the $2.5 billion collegiate apparel industry, university licensing policies have not been the only targets of recent anticorporate agitation on campus. This year, from UC-Davis to the University of Vermont, students have held globalization teach-ins, planned civil disobedience for the April IMF/World Bank meetings, protested labor policies at the Gap and launched vigorous campaigns to drive Starbucks out of university dining services. In snowy January, at the conservative Virginia Commonwealth University, twenty students slept outside the vice president’s office for two nights to protest the university’s contract with McDonald’s (the school promised the fast-food behemoth a twenty-year monopoly over the Student Commons). Students at Johns Hopkins and at Wesleyan held sit-ins demanding better wages for university workers. And at the end of March hundreds of students, many bearing hideously deformed papier-mâché puppets to illustrate the potential horrors of biotechnology, joined Boston’s carnivalesque protest against genetic engineering.