University of Kentucky students campaign against sweatshops, 1999-2000

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Timing
Time Period:  
August
1999
to
August
2000
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Lexington, Kentucky
Location Description: 
University of Kentucky Campus
Goals: 
Prevent the University of Kentucky from Signing on with the Fair Labor Administration (FLA)

Push the UK administration to sign on to the Worker's Rights Consortium which required (1) disclosure of working conditions within factories to the public, (2) an end to child labor, (3) inclusion of the workers in decision-making processes, and (4) living wages.

As an intermediary goal, the leaders wished to meet face-to-face with university president Charles Wethington.

 

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. These anti-sweatshop campaigns began in the mid-90s through the creation of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in order to fight back against both the schools’ endorsement of these practices and the practices themselves.

In the spring of the year 2000, the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) started as an alternative to the Fair Labor Association (FLA). Both associations included provisions that required that their members follow certain regulations; however, the WRC was much stricter and more explicit than the FLA about these regulations. The WRC demanded full disclosure of working conditions within factories and their location to the public, an end to child labor, living wages, and worker-endorsed decision-making processes.

At the University of Kentucky (UK), the Coalition Against Sweatshops, which began a few years earlier, took up this cause. In 1999 they protested heavily when the administration made moves to join the FLA. They demonstrated, collected signatures, and sent letters to members of the administration, explaining their position and demands for the school. The coalition consisted of the Leftist Student Union, the UK chapter of the National Organization for Women, the Muslim Student Association, the Arab Student Union, and the UK Amnesty International. Despite their concerted efforts, President Wethington and the trustees utilized the summer to concretize and enact their decisions such that they easily joined the FLA by the next school year.

Then in 2000, with the start of the WRC, a viable alternative, UK students were able to present their case more strongly. By mid-March the group escalated their demonstrating, hosting of rallies, forums, and lectures, and petitioning. On 23 March, two of the student leaders, Ben Gramig and Diana Hefford staged a “sweatshop strip-down” skit. The two protesters stood before the White Hall classroom building to draw attention and took off clothes until Gramig stood in his boxers and Hefford in her star-and-stripes bikini. They proceeded to march to the president’s office and to deliver a letter for President Wethington that outlined their demands that the university drop their association with the FLA and join the WRC. In a statement afterward, Wethington said that he had read the letter and was seriously considering the students’ concerns but that it would take time before any major decisions along these lines could be made.

The students continued holding small demonstrations and distributing pamphlets over the next week and a half. Then the Coalition determined that in order to have its voice heard they would need to engage in more direct tactics. On 4 April, a core group of students in the coalition staged a sit-in in the basement of the administration building. They bound themselves together with pvc piping, bike locks, and chains and held out for over 8 hours as a means of disrupting the trustees’ meeting above. Outside the building, many other students held a candle light vigil in order to garner support for the students inside and the cause in general.

At 1:00 A.M. police arrested the twelve students who had remained until that point and charged them with criminal trespassing and harassment. They were fined for the misdemeanor charges. The UK Faculty Senate Council immediately passed a resolution requesting that the school not take any disciplinary or legal actions against the students so as not to discourage their activism. The school heeded these concerns and they were given community service requirements by the judge in order to remove the charges from their record. Despite the eventual reduction in sentencing, the arrests caused significant agitation among the student body and the next day, a protest was organized to continue the debate the sit-in had started. The dean of students, Dave Stockham, went out to meet with the protesters, but when he was unable to answer any of the more pressing questions, the students responded by chanting, “Where’s Wethington?”

On 11 April, Wethington invited some of the student leadership to talk with him about creating a dialogue that would involve the students’ concerns. The students suggested that they set up a committee that would study the FLA and WRC in order to determine the legitimacy and efficacy of each and from there make an informed decision about the university’s involvement. Wethington rejected the idea. On 19 April, thirty-five groups signed a student proclamation demanding that the university join the WRC including many organizations outside of the campus such as the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, the Democracy Resource Center, the American Federation of Teachers, Catholic Charities, and the Alliance Against Racial and Political Repression. In May Luke Boyett, a founding member of the Leftist Student Union, gave a presentation to the trustees explaining the need to join the WRC and how that could be supported by the trustees. After Boyett’s presentation, an attorney representing the university explained the reasons why they had joined and remained with the FLA, citing the infancy of the WRC. After the presentation Wethington announced the formation of a 12-person committee consisting of four administrators, four faculty, and four students to further research the issue. Members of the coalition challenged the proposal on the grounds that only Wethington would have control over participation in the committee because he would personally chose all of its members.

Despite their objections, Wethington proceeded with the committee, and over the summer they met with representatives from both the FLA and the WRC. They ultimately decided to remain with the FLA. The committee sufficiently diffused student power to pressure the administration. On the anniversary of the sit-in, students held another protest to voice their continued discontent and disappointment with the decisions that had been made, but as the national campaign led by USAS moved on to other strategies, the campaign at the University of Kentucky diminished. UK remained a member of the FLA.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Featherstone, Liza. Students against Sweatshops. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

Bender, Daniel E, and Richard A. Greenwald. Sweatshop Usa: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Alex Frye, 16/03/2011