Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Circle in the Square: The USAS Nine

Get nine young minds focused, and they can move a mountain. (Photograph by Hart Uhl)

Their dedication is selfless. Their cause is global worker rights. They know more than our generation did about the reach of corporate power, and they’ve become sharp critics of an economics that depends on the exploitation of some human beings for the benefit of other human beings. We admire their passion for justice and their bravery in the face of institutional power.

Appalachian State University’s position? Why does anyone care about where an ASU T-shirt comes from? You can’t prove it was made under inhumane conditions. If you can’t prove it, you have no case. We heart the status quo.

USAS: It is precisely BECAUSE ASU does not know how and where its logo-licensed clothing is made that we are demanding that the university sign on to a verification system that DOES guarantee no sweatshop labor was involved. Simple as that.

It’s a small pill that ASU can’t force down its constricted esophagus. Choking on the little things has now produced a rather large PR problem, a ballooning discontent among faculty and students, and a growing perception that the university administration is advised by the law firm of Bumble & Stumble.

Excerpted here are some paragraphs written and distributed on campus yesterday by one of the leaders of USAS who was not arrested:
...I marched under the auspices of social justice and the freedoms of university life. I marched for my friends inside, for the Dominican workers who had visited our campus just weeks before, for unknowing consumers and those searching for justice. I marched against the looming irony; a campus dedicated to social responsibility arresting its own students for just that....

...From the beginning we had been antagonized by Lorin Baumhover, the Chancellor's Chief of Staff. We had been treated like ignorant little undergrads with not the slightest grasp of the issues we took on. Mr. Baumhover, at one point, actually claimed that ours was not scholarly research, that we hadn't put forth the necessary time and effort. To this allegation we responded with 50 pages of scholarly research. This document was evidently ignored, as communication virtually ceased upon delivery, around April of 2007. A meeting with Ms. [Cindy] Wallace [Vice Chancellor for Student Development] left me with the clear impression that within the administration were at least a couple people determined to prevent our success. I knew we could count on Mr. Baumhover's opposition, but he was just one.

On Thursday, after [a day and a night of the admin. bldg. sit-in], we were formally addressed. Cindy Wallace, the Vice Chancellor..., emerged as the definite spokesperson for the administration. This was a curious development; the administrator who had just a week earlier told us that she was not fully aware of the history of our campaign or our goals would take charge. While the Chancellor was unsurprisingly unseen for the entire week, several familiar faces, including Mr. Baumhover, were spotted. It isn't clear why Ms. Wallace took charge, or why Mr. Baumhover never spoke.

Ms. Wallace proceeded to offer us a series of predictable concessions, followed by an empty threat. "We will be in contact w/ the 41 other universities who have signed on," she announced. She suggested that, starting Monday, we would have regular meetings, firm deadlines, and open dialogue. She requested evidence of ASU's apparel being made in sweatshops. This has been dealt with extensively elsewhere, but a brief explanation may be necessary. The Fair Labor Association, of which ASU is a member, does not publicize factory conditions beyond brief summary, nor does it disclose the specific locations employed to produce ASU's apparel. The board of the FLA includes representatives of such brands as Nike, Adidas, Reebok, etc. Because sweatshop labor is an industry standard, and the fact that brands like Nike have been inextricably implicated in sweatshop operations, [FLA] is fundamentally flawed.... The correct question, however, is whether or not ASU can prove that our apparel is not made in sweatshops. The answer to that question is regrettably "No," a primary cause for our campaign.

Ms. Wallace suggested that we must leave, the failure to do so would be cause for arrest. USAS did not leave. On a dime, Ms. Wallace's demeanor shifted to one of more personal vendetta than professional frustration. Her parting comment of the day, "actually you are not welcome here," was in response to Dean of Students Susie Greene's statement, "we're glad to have you." From that point, Ms. Wallace was consumed not with the issue of labor injustice, but how she was going to get us out of the building. The extent to which she felt personally attacked is unfortunate, and has never been our goal. We greatly respect administrators and understand that their busy schedules don't always allow them to dig into every issue. We did not occupy B.B. Dougherty to denigrate Ms. Wallace or anyone else, but to call to the attention of the university the fact that an extremely serious issue is on our hands, and is being ignored. Ultimately, universities, students, and workers are all on the same side here. The DSP eventually will be signed, the FLA will be retired, and members of USAS, including myself, will be able rest assured. Brands will likely pass the marginal price increase, about a quarter on a $20 item, to the price tag. This price increase will barely be noticed by the consumer, but potentially life-changing to the factory worker....

By 7:00 [Friday night], following an incredibly uplifting teach-in attended by upwards of 60 students, faculty, and staff, action would be taken. Ms. Wallace again emerged from the ever-closed doors to deliver her final words. What followed was a jaw-dropping speech, including a warning that any student entering any building for the cause of protest would be met with arrest. She warned of second-degree trespassing charges, potential academic penalty, and a final demand that we depart. It was now undeniably clear that the ears of the administration were as closed as ever. I know, I have to believe that there are some within the administration fighting for us. I cannot accept that our university could be so blind, so unwilling to listen to its students. Ms. Wallace did not address the issue at all as a blanket of sadness draped the room. As we gathered our things, six members of USAS willingly lined up to be arrested. They were charged with 1st degree trespassing and disorderly conduct, they were not read their rights, and they were removed. Those remaining watched in horror as their fellow classmates, men and women, were escorted into a police van by armed officers.

From within the van emerged a faint chant of hope. "J - U - S. J-U-S-T-I-C-E. What We Want Is Justice In Our Factories. J - U - S. J-U-S-T-I-C-E. WHAT WE WANT IS JUSTICE IN OUR FACTORIES." For no less than 15 minutes dozens chanted this at the top of their lungs, reflecting an undying commitment to workers rights. As the supposed arms of justice carried peaceful protesters away, what remained was a mass of disillusioned members of the ASU community begging for explanation.

It is now Monday, and we have had a couple of days to reflect on the tragic events of last week (not to mention to collect the thousands of dollars to bail our people out of jail). We will not go away, the issue is unfinished. I am asking all of you, each one of you to make yourself heard. We must not stand silent while a clear problem with a clear solution goes unresolved. It is very much in the interest of ASU, including the administration, to adopt the DSP.

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