LABOR RALLIES ON SEVENTH AVE.
Byline: Eric Wilson / with contributions from Joanna Ramey, Washington
NEW YORK — The labor movement’s recent efforts to encourage grass-roots campaigning on college and high school campuses around the country have begun to take hold.
Of the 1,500 anti-sweatshop activists — about three times the number that was expected — who turned up at a labor rally here Saturday for what was dubbed a National Day of Conscience, organizers estimated that at least half were college or high school students who had been recruited by visits to local campuses.
Among the students, several carried banners targeting corporations such as Nike, Gap Inc. and Walt Disney Co. — the same companies that labor organizations such as UNITE and the National Labor Committee have targeted for several years. The group walked from Times Square down Seventh Avenue to Greeley Square, with speechmaking at both spots. Billy Bragg, a British rock star, performed at Greeley Square.
The students alleged these companies were responsible for human rights violations and unfair labor practices at contractors that make their merchandise.
Kevin Robbins and Abby Trooboff, both sophomores at Columbia University, said National Labor Committee executive director Charles Kernaghan came to their campus last month, showing a video on apparel workers’ living conditions in Haiti, and convinced them to get involved.
Part of the “Conscience” campaign includes the late November release of a list of retailers and labels the NLC believes are not taking the sweatshop issue seriously.
While the students said they would not buy clothes from those companies in the future, Trooboff admitted she was wearing Gap jeans.
Students from other campuses echoed that sentiment and said they were eager to educate consumers about how some clothes are made. At the same time, several were wearing Nike shoes.
Kernaghan said the students’ enthusiasm on labor issues is growing and that his office receives hundreds of calls daily asking for information about labor abuses.
“Students and religious people are like secret weapons,” Kernaghan said. “The companies expect the unions to be there protesting, but they can’t stand to see young people and religious people and ordinary people there.”
But in the ongoing battle over working conditions and wages, Saturday’s protests, per se, did not register much reaction from the corporate targets. However, they pointed to their own anti-sweatshop initiatives and commitment to these programs.
A spokesman for Disney said, “These accusations have been around for almost three years now.”
The spokesman faxed to WWD a list of Disney anti-sweatshop programs undertaken in the last year, including contractor-monitoring. Disney is the parent company of Fairchild Publications, which publishes WWD.
A spokesman for Nike called the protestors’ allegations “stale and unoriginal” and cited the company’s various anti-sweatshop efforts and studies as proof that the athletic footwear and apparel giant deals with reputable contractors.
“No one has really been able to come up with anything definitive in regard to the allegations. When there has been something of merit we have taken active steps to correct the circumstances. It’s wholly unfair to consistently accuse Nike of running factories below standards,” he said.
Despite several company-sponsored studies refuting sweatshop allegations, including one issued in June by civil rights leader and former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, Nike continues to be plagued by accusations.
“Nike is caught up in a larger debate over a shift of low-skill labor in the U.S. to the global market, trade agreements and trade legislation,” the spokesman said.
A spokesman for The Gap said the San Francisco-based retail chain remains keenly interested in worker conditions at its contractors.
In coming months Gap plans to implement an independent monitoring program at contractors in Honduras, similar to one in place in El Salvador. The El Salvador monitoring project, using local clergy and human rights groups to keep an eye on worker conditions, was instituted two years ago under pressure from a National Labor Committee campaign. It is seen by human rights groups as a model for all apparel and footwear companies to follow. Many large retailers and manufacturers have been wary of engaging local groups in the monitoring process, fearing the involvement of reactionaries.
The Gap already has company employees keeping an eye on contractor conditions worldwide. Integrating human rights groups in the process is slow since each locale is different, the spokesman said. “We believe the [local] folks have a valuable perspective. If they are reasonable groups, they can add a layer to what we already do,” he said.
As far as the Day of Conscience and the accusations made against The Gap, the spokesman took the protest in stride. “It’s about raising public awareness, and [corporate] names are thrown about. We are committed as we ever have been” to fighting sweatshops, he said.
A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, which Kernaghan said will most likely appear on his holiday-season shopping blacklist, also enumerated the retail giant’s anti-sweatshop initiatives. She said she had gotten some phone calls with queries from students participating in Saturday’s events.
A spokeswoman for Kmart Corp., another retailer cited by Kernaghan as probably appearing on the holiday blacklist, said: “We believe the inspection programs we have put in place in the U.S., as well as around the globe, and the policies we’ve set forth uphold our responsibilities to our customers to make sure we are doing business with the utmost integrity.”
Many of the 35 other demonstrations that took place throughout the country as part of the NLC’s National Day of Conscience occurred on college campuses, including a “Stop Sweatshops, Wear as Little as Possible” dance at Vassar College, Kernaghan said.