Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't sweat it

When I taught a graduate class on America's social movements at the New School University during the 1990s, one question I often received from students was why there seemed to be so little student activism around the country. Why had all the 'sixties movements died out?

One answer, of course, was that many of the goals of the earlier movements had been reached--partially, to be sure--especially concerning civil rights and feminism. But the more important answer was that student activism was indeed alive and well on campuses, if not quite on the scale that it had been. Students were, and are, actively involved in, among other things, gay rights, environmentalism, food cooperatives, and efforts to end the disgrace of sweatshops.

Just how active, and how successful, was seen recently with the report that Russell Athletic, a major supplier of clothing for sports teams and universities, had agreed to rehire all 1200 workers in its Honduras plant, which Russell had shut down after the employees unionized.

Russell's decision came about only after months of picketing and demands by United Students Against Sweatshops that their colleges and universities sever commercial relationships with the company. The schools agreed, and Russell capitulated. An astounding victory.

But there's another point to be made regarding this episode. Some observers are now saying that sweatshops, as debilitating as they are, are better than nothing, so stop fighting them. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who has done more to alert readers to crimes against women and children throughout the world than just about any other mainstream journalist or columnist, is among those who support sweatshops. His argument is that, although bad, "sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty." He has recently reaffirmed his position: "Americans are horrified by sweatshops, but nothing would help Liberia more than if China moved some of its sweatshops there, so that Liberians could make sandals and T-shirts."

Predictably, his justification has generated much outrage. Sabina Dawan at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, for example, replied that "The notion that taking advantage of a person’s desperation for economic gain is somehow morally defensible is preposterous." Alleviating poverty, in other words, does not require expansion of the dead-end horrors of sweat shops. Alternative strategies exist, she noted, such as those of The International Labor Organization’s Decent Work Agenda, "which focuses on the creation of decent employment, alongside social dialogue, social protection and fundamental principles and rights at work...."

And Josh Eidelson noted on his blog that while some argue that sweatshops in the United States were the springboard to a middle class existence for thousands of Americans, it was not the sweatshops themselves, but sustained organized opposition to them, largely through unions, that enabled the workers to realize their dreams.

The victory of United Students Against Sweatshops has demonstrated beyond question that the anti-sweatshop movement is the way to go.

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