University of Pennsylvania students campaign against sweatshop-produced apparel, 1999-2000

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Time Period:  
13 December
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Location Description: 
University of Pennsylvania campus
The original campaign had a four-part goal: (1) permission of at least one student representative from UPenn to attend the next meeting of the Ivy League task force on sweatshops, as well as future meetings. (2) "genuinely independent monitors" who could fairly inspect the manufacturing sites without any "conflict of interest." (3) a "living wage" for factory employees in every factory that produced official school-logo apparel. (4) "public disclosure" of the exact addresses of every factory that produced official school-logo apparel.

However, the goal quickly became to convince the UPenn administration to withdraw membership from the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and join the Workers' Rights Consortium (WRC).


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 demands included increased student involvement on the sweatshop issue, “genuinely independent monitors” who could fairly inspect the manufacturing sites without any “conflict of interest,” a “living wage” for factory employees, and “public disclosure” of the exact addresses of every factory that produces official school-logo apparel. University officials claimed to be committed to working with the other Ivies and the Association for Collegiate Licensing Administration to develop a policy on labor practices, which would then be submitted to Rodin for approval. President Rodin did decide to require “full disclosure” in Spring of 1999, but was slow to take steps towards making that decision a reality.

There is little information on the events of the campaign from March 1999 until September 1999, when PAN and USAS held a candlelight vigil on College Green to support eight former sweatshop workers from El Salvador who caused a significant incline on the anti-sweatshop movement by speaking to a group of students from USAS about the conditions in the factory where entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford’s line of clothing was being produced, which resulted in them being fired from their jobs there. Gifford’s corporation, UPenn, and many other corporations and institutions were members of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a factory conditions monitoring organization, which then became the main opponent of the anti-sweatshop movement.

In October of 1999, Penn officials told students that they would require all new makers of Penn apparel to disclose their factory locations by January 15, and that they would make the list of locations publicly available by January 30, 2000, in response to a USAS rally encouraging students to publicly disrobe in protest to the working conditions under which their clothing was being manufactured. USAS had also just nationally released an alternative to the FLA, the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC). At that point, getting corporations and institutions to switch their membership from the FLA to the WRC became the main goal of the campaign.

In November of 1999, 14 Penn USAS members staged a sit-in in University President Rodin’s office, demanding that she meet with them. They successfully forced an impromptu meeting with Rodin, who ended up promising to modify Penn’s licensing contracts in order to be able to subsequently establish new rules regarding workers’ rights with its apparel producers. The students chanted, sang peaceful songs, read their demands aloud, and discussed their plans while they waited for Rodin and did not become agitated at any point.

In December of 1999, the Philadelphia City Council released a resolution in support of students’ efforts to get colleges and universities to join the WRC, becoming the first city council in the nation to do so. In response, President Rodin called a meeting with USAS, during which she refused to promise to withdraw membership from the FLA, and the students set a February 1, 2000 deadline for Penn to leave the FLA.

The University did not withdraw its membership from the FLA by the February 1


deadline, at which point the protests increased significantly. The month began with a letter of support being submitted to Rodin by 24 faculty members, students protesting on College Green alongside City Councilman David Cohen, and a “teach-in” at Civic House. By February 4


, Rodin had appointed a committee to examine the University’s sweatshop policy, but that was not enough to satisfy the demands of the students and their increasing number of supporters. On February 8


, After another meeting with Rodin during which she refused to withdraw from the FLA, PSAS (formerly USAS) members decided to take extreme measures and began a sit-in in her office, which began with 13 students and grew to approximately 35.

During their eight-day sit-in, the students continued to promote their cause and build support among fellow students as well as the wider community. They held rallies, vigils, petition signings, and a series of speakers from local and national organizations in an effort to involve and educate the community in their campaign. The students met with Rodin throughout the week, and finally convinced her with a “thoughtful, practical proposal” to withdraw the University’s membership from the FLA on February 16


, making Penn the first university to withdraw membership from the FLA.

However, withdrawing from the FLA was only half of PSAS’s goal, and the closing of this sit-in was certainly the highpoint of their campaign. Rodin agreed to let the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sweatshop Labor examine the issue, giving them a deadline of February 29


to come up with a recommendation regarding “with which, if any, monitoring organization(s) Penn should affiliate.” After the recommendation was issued, Rodin would make a final decision.

On February 28


, after two weeks of deliberation, the Ad-Hoc Committee presented Rodin with the recommendation that Penn provisionally join both the WRC and the FLA. Rodin accepted the recommendation in full on March 2


, under the condition that both the FLA and the WRC agree to give greater representation on their boards of directors to academic institutions.

Unpleased with the decision to rejoin the FLA, PSAS members distributed fliers about the continuation of the issue, urged students to e-mail Rodin and demand that Penn join only the WRC, and held a “sew-out” demonstration in late March, but many community members were no longer interested as they were under the impression that the issue had been resolved at the close of the sit-in in February.

In April, President Rodin sent a letter to both monitoring organizations requesting greater representation of colleges and universities on each organization’s governing board, to which neither organization offered a satisfactory reply. So, the Ad-Hoc Committee then recommended that the University not join either organization, to which Rodin agreed, sending both organizations a letter explaining the University’s disappointment and requesting permission to send two Penn representatives to the organizations’ respective conferences, which was declined. Shortly after receiving these responses, the Ad-Hoc Committee and President Rodin decided that Penn would not join either the FLA or the WRC, and formed the Committee of Manufacturer Responsibility (CMR) to enforce the University’s Code of Conduct of University apparel manufacturers as well as continue to examine whether Penn should join the WRC or the FLA.

The CMR continued to meet over the summer and was given a Thanksgiving deadline to submit a recommendation to President Rodin on whether to join the FLA, the WRC, or both. In October, PSAS sent Rodin a letter expressing their concern that CMR was not adequately addressing the issue of university representation, and demanded once again that Penn join the WRC. The letter successfully caused the CMR to give more attention to the issue of university representation, something the committee had claimed was their first priority when evaluating the WRC and the FLA. Much to the disappointment of PSAS members, however, the CMR recommended in early November of 2000 that Penn join both the FLA and the WRC.

To protest the possibility of Penn rejoining the FLA, PSAS members performed a “reverse fashion show,” once again demonstrating for their cause by publicly disrobing. That paired with a huge banner that they hung from Steinberg-Dietrich Hall were PSAS’s final attempts at influencing Rodin’s decision on which organization to join, although the students said that they would not protest her final decision. On December 13


, 2000, Rodin announced her decision that Penn would join both the Fair Labor Association and the Workers’ Rights Consortium to monitor the production of University-logo apparel.

The University is still a member of both the FLA and the WRC as of March 2010. Sometime prior to May 2005, PSAS ceased to be an active organization. The CMR, which is still functioning, spent some time verifying that PSAS is in fact no longer a viable group. In order to fulfill the requirement in the University’s Code of Workplace Conduct for two voting seats to be reserved for PSAS or its successor, CMR has appointed the Civic House Associates Coalition, an organization with interests that parallel those of PSAS, as the successor of PSAS.

Research Notes

Students from Wisconsin, Indiana, Madison, and Ann Arbor cited Penn's sit-in as a catalyst for action on their own campus. (2)

The actions at Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan was also “background material” for Penn’s committee. (1)

Cornell, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, and Duke, all staged similar protests a little earlier than Penn. (1)

The Daily Pennsylvanian archives and articles were the source material for this case:
Additional Notes: 
The National Labor Committee told Liz Claiborne, who owned a factory from which 30 workers were fired for trying to unionize in El Salvador, that if the workers were not reinstated, the students conducting the sit-in at Penn would be contacted to launch a national publicity campaign against the company; the workers were reinstated shortly thereafter. Charlie Kernaghan, head of the NLC, said that Penn’s sit-in, and the student movement, was what finally caused their negotiations to be successful.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Hannah-Ruth Miller, 14/02/2010