Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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NU students urge tougher labor stance

They say the clothes make the man — but what about the men and women who make the clothes?

It’s a question students are asking more often, protesting across the country against labor rights abuses in factories that manufacture university apparel. Northwestern pre-empted protests last year when it became one of the early members of the Fair Labor Association, a national organization aimed at eliminating poor working conditions.

But last week, a second organization, the Worker Rights Consortium, held its founding conference in New York — and some students are urging administrators to join.

“We believe that the WRC has a stronger code of conduct than does the FLA,” said Peter Micek, co-president of Peace Project. “The wording is stronger on (issues) similar to the FLA, and the WRC is further along than the FLA in several key categories.”

Micek, a Medill freshman, said the consortium has more stringent protection of women’s rights, demands full disclosure of factory locations and requires that workers be paid a living wage. Micek and fellow Peace Project leaders discussed their concerns in recent talks with University President Henry Bienen and Eugene Sunshine, senior vice president for business and finance.

In a statement posted to the Web on Tuesday, NU re-affirmed its support of the FLA and offered tentative support for the upstart WRC. Sunshine said NU wanted to send a representative to the founding conference as an observer, but organization officials said NU would first have to commit to joining the organization.

According to its Web site, the WRC has 44 members, up from 13 only a month ago.

Administrators said they will consider joining the Worker Rights Consortium, but not before its goals and methods are outlined more clearly.

“We understand their point of view, and we’re in agreement with the principles of where they want to get,” Sunshine said. “If the WRC becomes well-organized and we agree with all of their principles and objectives, we will jump on board.”

The two groups differ primarily in their method of monitoring the factories where the apparel is produced.

Fair Labor Association members require companies to monitor each of their factories every year, involving local non-governmental organizations in the process. It also requires external monitoring by inspectors approved by the association.

But companies are only required to have external monitoring for 30 percent of their factories, and after three years, the requirement drops to between 5 percent and 15 percent.

Critics say reliance on corporate monitors taints the process and could potentially allow corporations to hide labor rights abuses.

“My stance is pretty simple: Corporations are the sole and direct perpetrators of the abuses present in the university apparel manufacturing system,” Micek said. “They’re the ones exploiting the workers.”

Micek said asking corporations to monitor their own factories is a conflict of interest. He said he favors the more independent WRC process, which relies on surprise visits to factories by monitors unaffiliated with the corporation.

But the WRC has no preset number of annual inspections, and denying corporations a direct role in the monitoring process could create logistical hurdles.

“We generally believe that there’s much more good than harm in having corporations involved in the process,” Sunshine said. “Much more can be achieved if the owners of the businesses are fully engaged in (monitoring).”

Sunshine said that the companies should not control the process, but should remain “a major player.”

Despite differences in methodology, Sunshine said the university will continue to follow the development of the WRC.

“We’re watching them really carefully,” he said. “I have no criticism of them whatsoever. They just came along later in the process than the FLA.”

Micek said there might not be room for both organizations to be successful.

“There could be problems with both trying to be used at the same time,” he said. “Corporations are going to have to choose one or another when it comes down to it.”

So far the consortium has not encouraged the either-or mentality; they have not discouraged universities from joining both organizations. Sunshine said cooperation between the organizations could further the labor rights movement as a whole.

“When you’re rowing in the same direction, you don’t want to antagonize the people rowing with you,” he said. “Let’s keep moving ahead. Let’s hope the WRC gets off the ground and does some good things, let’s hope the FLA continues to do some good things, and everyone’s a winner.”

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NU students urge tougher labor stance