The year 1997 marked the start of a nation-wide anti-sweatshop movement led and fueled by college and university students from over 200 campuses. Inspired by early movements on Georgetown and University of Pennsylvania campuses and enraged by Bill Clinton’s attempt to mollify the public’s anger with the creation of the corrupt Fair Labor Union (FLA), University of Iowa students established a Students Against Sweatshops (SAS, or UISAS) chapter in 1999.
Beginning in January of 2000, Tulane University students formed a student organization on campus as a result of distress about sweatshop-made Tulane Apparel. The students were unhappy with the school’s membership with the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a sweatshop monitoring organization. They believed that the FLA was an organization that indirectly helped to preserve low wages, long hours, and unhealthy working conditions, like the ones found in sweatshops.
On 1 March 2000, 400 Yale University students rallied to demand that their administration withdraw from the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) instead. Both organizations focused on monitoring sweatshop labor and apparel companies overseas to ensure that the workers in these companies receive fair treatment; however, universities across the country began to oppose the FLA and argue that it did not actually monitor the companies properly or ensure good working conditions for employees.
Like students at many other colleges and universities at the turn of the millennium, students at Macalester College began to react against sweatshop and anti-union corporations that supplied the school store with apparel in 2000. Inspired by student activism at Duke University the previous year and a highly publicized sit-in at the University of Pennsylvania the previous month, Macalester students escalated their campaign on Monday morning, March 6, with a sit-in on the steps of the President’s office.
The first wave of anti-sweatshop movements developed in the 1980s and focused on U.S. economic policy in South America. It was not until 1996 that the anti-sweatshop movement gained national media attention with the revelation that the actress Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line for Wal-Mart was sewn in Honduran sweatshops. The media coverage this received greatly increased awareness on U.S. outsourcing policies.
At the turn of the century, student groups on college campuses across the country began campaigns to push university administrations to hold their apparel suppliers accountable to fair labor practices. Many students had realized that many of the licenses that their schools had with large clothing companies included those that relied on sweatshop labor for production.
In 2000, students around the country protested sweatshop-manufactured college apparel. Students at Syracuse University (SU) protested using a variety of different tactics, including a naked bicycle ride through campus. In their yearlong campaign, Syracuse students wished to convince SU’s Chancellor, Kenneth A. Shaw, to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). Their ultimate goal, along with students nationwide, was better wages and better working conditions for workers who manufactured college apparel.
In February of 1999, members of the Progressive Activist Network (PAN) at Penn joined with United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) chapters at other Ivy League universities in an anti-sweatshop campaign by sending a joint letter to their university presidents. The letter requested a response by March 8, 1999, from University President Judith Rodin and seven other Ivy League university presidents, (excluding Dartmouth’s,) to four demands regarding the possible use of sweatshops in school-insignia apparel production.
The anti-sweatshop movement was the largest student activism movement in the United States since the South African divestment movement over ten years before. Students all around the country pressured college and university administrators to adopt strict labor codes that guaranteed that merchandise bearing the college’s logo was not made by people working under unacceptable, “sweatshop-like” conditions.
In 1997, student activists formed an organization called United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Entirely student run, the organization strives to "win victories that set precedents in the struggle for self-determination of working people everywhere, particularly campus workers and garment workers who make collegiate licensed apparel." In an effort to pursue these goals, USAS created another organization in 2000: the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).
In response to other universities’ anti-sweatshop protests, students at the University of Michigan formed SOLE, Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality. Their goal was for the University of Michigan to require companies that made clothing for the school to disclose where their factories were located. Once this information was available, outside independent organizations could make sure that the factories were not sweatshops.
In the fall of 1997, students at Duke University formed the group Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) to push the Duke administration to create and adopt a code of conduct policy that would require the companies that manufactured Duke apparel and merchandise to uphold workers’ rights and eliminate the use of sweatshops.
The students’ anti-sweatshop movement began to generate support in the mid 90s, but was most impactful by the end of the decade. Universities and colleges nationwide began investigating where their college merchandise was made and inquiring about the manufacturers’ labor laws. The main target for many universities, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was Nike because of their partnership with the athletic teams. UNC signed a 7.1 million dollar contract with Nike during the summer of 1997, thus committing to Nike products for the duration of their con
Since 1996, a small number of State University of New York (SUNY) students had been urging the university administration to reject contracts with companies that had unfair labor policies. However, by 1999, students had made very little progress and campus stores still sold questionable sweatshop products.