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Sunshine on Sweatshops | The Nation

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Sunshine on Sweatshops

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It's been more than three months since twelve Florida State University students were arrested for setting up a "tent city" in front of the school's administration building. But the uproar over the arrests, and the continuing presence of a group of sweatshop activists camped out on an FSU quad, have left an indelible mark on this campus known more for holding national titles in football and "party school" rankings than for student protest activity.

About the Author

Jenny Stepp
Jenny Stepp is a freelance writer and a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina.

The tent-city protest was intended to end a long debate with the administration, which refuses to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a sweatshop monitoring agency backed by the protesters and faculty, which passed a resolution supporting the students' position. Instead, the arrests marked the beginning of a long standoff between the administration and student protesters, who now find themselves living in tents and sleeping bags to protest both the sweatshop issue and the administration's refusal to tolerate the earlier protest--well after their classmates have gone home for the summer.

The decision made by President Talbot D'Alemberte to arrest the students and move the protest to the school's far less conspicuous free-speech zone has drawn criticism from activists throughout Florida. But former First Amendment attorney D'Alemberte is dismissive of accusations that the school has violated the students' free-speech rights: "I've read the First Amendment pretty carefully, and I don't see any mention of tents."

When it comes to discussion of membership in the WRC, D'Alemberte is similarly hostile. Florida State was one of the founding institutions of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which has been blasted by student and labor leaders for its inclusion of vendors like Nike on its board of directors. Critics say this organizational structure has resulted in a weakened code of conduct and an inability to independently monitor the companies who sit on its board. Student activists like those at FSU believe the FLA is more of a public relations front than an actual monitoring agency.

This past April the FLA made policy changes that attempt to create a more independent monitoring system. For example, it will no longer allow companies to select which factories will be monitored and when the monitors will perform their inspections, as they did under the old system. But Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, believes these changes have absolutely no impact on the importance of the WRC. "The WRC exists because there was a need for an independent labor-rights watchdog organization within the college apparel industry," Nova said. "Regardless of what procedural changes are made [at the FLA], there is always going to be a need for an independent watchdog agency."

D'Alemberte claims the WRC is an ineffective monitoring tool looking for violations that amount to a "needle in the haystack" among the college apparel industry. He dismisses the organization as "Amnesty International-lite" and believes it has a "hidden agenda to stigmatize foreign labor in order to push a traditional agenda of protectionism."

But student protesters are suspicious of D'Alemberte's free-trade reasoning. Richie Kent, one of the summer campers, claims D'Alemberte is "looking after the business of Nike and other contractors instead of thousands of workers." Likewise, Jim O'Rourke, an English professor and faculty adviser to the FSU chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops, says that various press releases and statements from the president and the athletic director have given him the sense that "the pressure [not to join the WRC] is coming from the athletic department."

Sit-ins, protests and campouts have been required at many of the 100 universities who have now joined the WRC, and in this respect, FSU is no different. But the consequences of Florida State joining the WRC could be much more substantial than those at many of the other member schools, which might explain why the conflict has become so protracted at Florida State. Pendas says the possible impact of FSU joining is "huge.... We're such a big university...and we're in the South, for Christ's sake!" He predicts a "domino effect" that would result in several other Florida universities joining--perhaps most importantly, the University of Florida, another football powerhouse with millions in licensing revenue pouring in each year.

July 2 marks day 100 of the tent city. Despite the intense summer heat, the dwindling food and supplies and the apparent standstill in negotiations, the students don't seem ready to leave. They anticipate a resolution to this issue in the fall, but until then, they'll be camped in their tents, passing out information on Nike and the WRC to incoming students who are getting their first look at FSU and the student movement that has taken hold of their campus.

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