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University of Oregon students demonstrate for fair labor practices, 2000-2001
The University of Oregon is a large state university with a student body population of approximately 23,000 students, located in Eugene, Oregon. The school has a strong athletic legacy and Phil Knight, the founder of Nike Inc., is an alumnus and significant benefactor of the school.
In April of 2000, student body leadership began organizing student energy around an anti-sweatshop and fair labor practices campaign. Much of the apparel that the school produced bearing its logo was made in foreign countries in factories that had demonstrated questionable labor practices and treatment of workers. The student campaign declared that Dave Frohnmayer, president of the school, must sign on with the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC). The WRC is an independent labor rights organization that conducts inspections of factories and guarantees transparency. Students wanted Frohnmayer to sign on with the group for a five-year period of time.
On April 4, 2000, university students began a sit-in at Johnson Hall, the administrative building on campus. Students demonstrated with signs and chants, while five of their peers locked arms inside of the administration building and refused to leave until Frohnmayer had signed on with the WRC. Those arrested included both the student body vice president at the time, as well as the president-elect. Ten members of the Eugene Police Department and five public safety officers handcuffed the students and took them to the basement of the building. The students were charged with second degree trespassing. Frohnmayer said that he was considering signing on with the group, but was waiting on a recommendation from the university senate as well as the university licensing code of conduct committee. The students emphasized that a ballot measure in the university elections earlier that year had passed with 75% of the voters in favor of joining the WRC.
On April 5, six more students were arrested for occupying the administrative building. The student body president educated the student demonstrators and passersby about the university structure and governance in relation to the campaign. Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, spoke to the students as well. Somewhere around 55 students camped out on the lawn in front of the building overnight to establish support for the cause. The next day, the students made several significant moves to emphasize the seriousness of their demands. President Frohnmayer had ignored the students’ repeated requests for a meeting and the students’ patience was waning. On April 6, three students tried to enter the President’s office and when one declined to give his information to the arresting officers, he was taken to jail. Meanwhile the mass of protesters, then numbering about fifty people, moved from the lawn in front of the building to the hall outside of Frohnmayer’s office in support of the three students.
On April 8, eight students, the university president, and two mediators sat down to set a date for an open meeting with the student body. In addition, the student demonstrators formalized their demands into two main points: they wanted the university to sign on with the WRC for a five-year term and they wanted to restructure the university senate so that there was more student influence in university decisions. At the open meeting, students further demanded assurance that the university would not sign on with the organization Fair Labor Association (FLA), a group that had been criticized for being too lax in its inspections and that had refused to exercise transparency. Frohnmayer’s central goal was to only sign on with WRC for a one-year period rather than five. On Wednesday of that week, the university senate met to discuss joining the WRC. By the end of the meeting, the senate had passed a resolution in favor of joining 21 to 1. 200 students watched president Frohnmayer sign on to the WRC for a period of one year with the option to renew annually. This signing indicated the end of a ten-day occupation of the lawn outside Johnson Hall, where students had been camped out.
On April 24, word was released that Nike founder Knight was retracting a $30 million pledge that he had made to the school previously. He disagreed with the university’s move to sign on with the WRC and subsequently pulled his gift. Many students were concerned that the university would not follow through with its commitment to a shift in policy for fear that it would lose its biggest benefactor.
In September 2000, the university joined the FLA with little to no warning. This was met by serious frustration on the part of the students who said that the FLA gave too much freedom to the apparel industry. Not long after, Frohnmayer gave the student protesters more to be frustrated over. Under the advice of legal counsel, Frohnmayer refused to pay the membership dues to the WRC, saying that it was not a recognized organization.
For several months the energy of the campaign died down, but students continued to use the Daily Emerald, the University’s school newspaper, to publish letters and op-ed pieces in support of the campaign. Then, in February 2001, the State Board of Higher Education in Oregon passed a mandate saying that schools must conduct business in a “politically impartial manner,” which essentially nullified involvement with either the WRC or the FLA. In April, the students tried to organize to fight the policy and to attend hearings on the issues, but it was to no avail.
Following the graduation of the student demonstrators who had led the campaign, there was a significant drop in energy surrounding the issues of fair labor practices on campus. Though the students achieved their demand to have Frohnmayer sign on with the WRC, the campaign was not sustainable once the State Board of Higher Education got involved and student energy waned. However, despite the University of Oregon’s refusal to pay their membership dues, the WRC’s base continued to expand as more and more schools signed on. Several months after the end of the campaign, Knight reinstated his gift to University of Oregon athletics, pledging enough money for the school to expand the football stadium.