Purdue University students campaign against sweatshops, 2000

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Time Period:  
March 27,
April 7,
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
West Lafayette, Indiana
Location Description: 
Purdue University Campus
To convince Purdue University administrators to agree to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC)

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). The WRC works world wide to monitor the working conditions of factories used to produce collegiate apparel such as hats, shirts, and sweatshirts.

Student activists at numerous campuses began to campaign for their school to join the consortium. This frequently entailed the school in question withdrawing from the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a different self-monitoring group which many of the student activists found insufficient. A number of the campuses involved in the effort, including the University of Pennsylvania, held sit-ins to pressure the school's administration to join the WRC. Some campuses, however, opted to employ different tactics.

At Purdue University, in Indiana, a group of student activists went on a hunger strike. Starting on Monday, March 27, 2000, six Purdue students moved into tents on the Memorial Mall on their campus and stopped eating. These students, the Purdue Students Against Sweatshops, announced that they would continue with the hunger strike, living in tents until Purdue President Steven Beering agreed to sign Purdue University to join with the WRC.

The students were not alone in their ideals. The hunger strike was kicked off with a rally. Local steelworker unions, the Black Student Union, Purdue Off-Campus Student Coalition, Indiana University's No-Sweat and members of the Purdue Student Government all showed up to the rally in support of the hunger strikers. Students from the University of Miami-Ohio visited Purdue's campus early in the week, to show their support for the cause. By the following Friday, the Purdue Students Against Sweatshops had more than doubled in size when thirteen anti-sweatshop activists tied themselves to a pillar using red tape.

This is not to say that the efforts of the group went without opposition. Members of Purdue's University Conservative Action Network voiced their opinions on the matter, stating their beliefs that the University was wise to take time in investigating the WRC and whether it would be a feasible means of monitoring factories. The University Conservative Action Network expressed concern that the hunger strike would pressure the school administration into a decision before it had been well thought out. Members of the group also claimed that the WRC was linked to the Communist party, which the members of the Conservative Action Network did not support. The members of the group were, however, sure to emphasize that they did not support sweatshop labor, but simply felt that taking time to research the WRC was the best thing for the University.

Other students also criticized the efforts of the Purdue Students Against Sweatshops via writing letters to the school's daily newspaper. Although there were never any counter protests against the effort of the hunger strike, there were many arguments against their case. Students of Purdue University brought up many points against the hunger strike, varying anywhere from arguing that sweatshops provide jobs to impoverished peoples, to one student who argued that workers' rights was irrelevant because it didn't deal with their eternal souls, and "if everyone is going to die anyway at some point, why bother?" However, the written responses to the hunger strike were not all negative. A number of students wrote to the paper in support of the Purdue Students Against Sweatshops efforts, occasionally admonishing the students who wrote in opposition of the campaign.

Amid all of the controversy in the press, the hunger strike continued, and the Purdue Students Against Sweatshops held a demonstration on Monday, April 3 - one week after the hunger strike began. The demonstration was meant to be a visual representation of the reality of sweatshop labor. Fifteen student activists acted as workers, bosses, and consumers. The "bosses" whipped the "workers" with cloth, telling them to work harder. "Consumers" circled the others, chanting "Buy More!" while blindfolded, unable to see the atrocities happening right in front of them.

The University administration seemed unwilling to move on the issue, determined to wait for more information on the WRC before making a decision. However, on April 6, the Purdue Students Against Sweatshops and the University held negotiations, reaching a compromise that pleased both parties. The students agreed to end the hunger strike following the University's decision to provisionally join at least one factory-monitoring group by September 30th, 2000. The students then ate on April 7th, breaking what ultimately ended up being an eleven day fast.

Purdue University is now a permanent affiliate of the WRC, and the Purdue Students Against Sweatshops still exists under a new name: the Purdue Organization for Labor Equality (POLE).

Research Notes
Bender, Daniel E. "Epilogue: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns in a New Century." Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. Print.

Featherstone, Liza. ""I'd Rather Go Naked": Student Protest and the Worker Rights Consortium."Students against Sweatshops. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

"USAS | About Us." USAS | Organizing for Student & Worker Power! Web. 06 Feb. 2011. <http://usas.org/about-us/>.

Renderman, Vanessa. "Students Begin Hunger Strike Activists Raise Concern about Sweatshop Labor." Purdue Exponent. Purdue University, 28 Mar. 2000. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/03/28/features/index.html>.

Renderman, Vanessa. "Group speaks out against strike." Purdue Exponent. Purdue University, 29 Mar. 2000. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/03/29/features/2.html>.

Renderman, Vanessa. "Students vow to continue strike." Purdue Exponent. Purdue University, 30 Mar. 2000. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/03/30/features/index.html>.

Renderman, Vanessa. "Protesters tie themselves to Hovde Hall." Purdue Exponent. Purdue University, 31 Mar. 2000. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/03/31/>.

Renderman, Vanessa. "Hunger strike continues: Students defend cause in week two of protest, activism." Purdue Exponent. Purdue University, 3 Apr. 2000. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/04/03/>.

Renderman, Vanessa. "Activists visually portray reality of sweatshop labor." Purdue Exponent. Purdue University, 4 Apr. 2000. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/04/04/features/index.html>.

Renderman, Vanessa. "Hunger strikers feel dizzying effects of their protest." Purdue Exponent. Purdue University, 5 Apr. 2000. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/04/05/features/index.html>.

Renderman, Vanessa. "Labor unions play role in sweatshop activism." Purdue Exponent. Purdue University, 7 Apr. 2000. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/04/07/features/index.html>.

Renderman, Vanessa. "Students end hunger strike." Purdue Exponent. Purdue University, 7 Apr. 2000. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/04/10/features/its.html>.

Letters sent by readers to the Purdue Exponent:

3/30/00: <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/03/30/opinions/w.html>

3/31/00 a: <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/03/31/opinions/par.html>

3/31/00 b: <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/03/31/opinions/rya.html>

3/31/00 c: <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/03/31/opinions/mil.html>

4/03/00 a: <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/04/03/opinions/lee.html>

4/03/00 b: <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/04/03/opinions/kap.html>

4/05/00: <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/04/05/opinions/davis.html>

4/10/00: <http://archive.purdueexponent.org/2000/04/10/opinions/lettera.html>

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (23/07/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Ashley Banks, 07/02/2011