SUNY-Albany students protest campus sweatshop products, U.S., 2000

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Students did not see very many immediate results, but their actions are most likely responsible for the legislation passed two years later (2002) that allowed New York State universities to join the Worker's Rights Coalition (WRC).
February
2000
to
April
2000
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Albany, New York
Location Description: 
University of about 18,000 students in a large city
Goals: 
"The SUNY Sweatfree Coalition is comprised of student, labor, and social justice organizations in NY who have joined forces to fight for a sweatfree SUNY.

The coalition aims to transform SUNY into a sweatfree system by tying together campus-based sweatfree initiatives with state-wide initiatives.

We demand that SUNY sign onto the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP) and associate with the Worker Rights Consortium to ensure that SUNY does not contract with or subsidize sweatshops."

-From the group's Facebook page

 

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.

In a renewed effort, SUNY students at the Albany campus formed the Coalition for a Sweat-Free SUNY, which consisted of more than 30 student, faculty, and community groups. The Coalition hosted a conference in October of 1999, called Sweat Stop ’99, to educate the campus community and gather support. However, University administration claimed to be unable to change their policies, due to New York State laws that required universities to make purchases from “the lowest responsible bidder.” Students were dissatisfied with the school’s interpretation of the word “responsible” and desired a reevaluation of the university’s policies and university bookstore’s contracts.

SUNY students seized an opportunity when, in February 2000, students at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a sit-in to pressure the administration to discontinue the sale of sweatshop products in campus stores. This demonstration sparked an eruption of student protests and sit-ins at colleges and universities all around the country, including the SUNY-Albany campus.

On February 22, 2000, Sweat-Free SUNY students initiated talks with university president, Karen R. Hitchcock. Students used these talks to raise concerns regarding the inappropriate working conditions and exploitative wages of workers around the world, particularly employees of companies that held contracts with the University, and whose clothing bore the University logo. Hitchcock praised the students for their dedication to social justice. Although the talks continued through all of March, the students made little headway and saw no new changes.

On April 4, eleven students occupied Hitchcock’s office for nearly five hours. During this time, the students used bullhorns and noisemakers to disturb classes and work. Hitchcock, who was not in her office at the time, issued a statement announcing her intentions to continue talks with the Sweat-Free SUNY representatives, but refused to do so while the students continued to occupy her office and cause a commotion.

University officials asked the students to vacate the president’s office and reassemble outside, but the students refused. When University Police Chief Frank Wiley threatened to have the students arrested if they did not comply, the students locked arms and declined to move. The University Police took the students into custody and charged them with trespassing.

University Police arrested six other students later that day when they refused to leave the Administration Building after closing time. Two officers attempted to secure doors to the building when they encountered several students who made efforts to push past the officers and gain entry into the building. One student’s shoving broke an officer’s glasses. University police subsequently charged the student with assault.

These incidents prompted President Hitchcock to form a Task Force on Sweatshop Labor later that month. The Task Force consisted of students, faculty, staff, and representatives from both Sweat-Free SUNY and the University’s Barnes and Noble campus bookstore, and was expected to examine the issue in depth and advise the president as to the best courses of action. Although managers of the University Barnes and Noble bookstore assured the campus community that all of their products came from companies that complied with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) guidelines, Sweat-Free SUNY demanded that the university instead join the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC), which had a stricter code of conduct than the FLA.

Despite the efforts of the campus community, SUNY administration declared that New York State law prohibited universities from joining the WRC. It was not until August 6, 2002 that state legislators passed a new law and removed barriers that prevented institutions of higher education from joining the WRC. However, to date, only 4 out of 64 SUNY campuses have joined the WRC.

Sweat-Free SUNY later expanded its scope and investigated other workers-rights issues on campus, such as the exploitation and abuse of “invisible” campus workers. The group is still active today and has spread to many of the other SUNY campuses.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The SUNY-Albany students were influenced by the University of Pennsylvania students' sit-ins in February 2000. (See, University of Pennsylvania students campaign against sweatshop-produced apparel, 1999-2000) (1)

Sources: 
Fiess, Mary. "President Forms Task Force on Sweatshop Labor." University

Update. University at Albany - SUNY, 13 Apr. 2000. Web. 06 Feb. 2011. <http://www.albany.edu/pr/updates/april13/highlightstest.html>.

Fiess, Mary. "Seventeen Charged with Trespassing during Campus Protests." University Update. University at Albany - SUNY, 13 Apr. 2000. Web. 06 Feb. 2011. <http://www.albany.edu/pr/updates/april13/highlightstest.html>.

Hayes, Jackie. "SUNY Sweatfree Coalition (Facebook Group)." Facebook. Web. 06 Feb 2011. <http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=138476250595>.

Hennessy, Rosemary. "¡Ya Basta! We Are Rising Up!" World Bank Literature. By Amitava Kumar. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2003. 47-52. Print.

"Sweatshop Free School Campaigns." Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State. 27 Apr. 2010. Web. 06 Feb. 2011.

<http://www.labor-religion.org/SF-school-campaigns.htm>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Jennifer Trinh, 06/02/2011