NSAS sets up camp to lobby administrators

Casey Newton

Activism made for strange bedfellows Thursday night as members of Northwestern Students Against Sweatshops pitched three tents at the Rebecca Crown Center. They planned to be there when administrators arrived for work this morning.

The aim: To get administrators to join the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor-rights organization that NSAS members believe protects laborers more comprehensively than the Fair Labor Association. NU joined the FLA last year to ensure apparel bearing its logo was not made in sweatshops.

The sleepover followed a vigil held for the living wage, which the WRC plans to require of all the factories it monitors. The controversial concept has been a sticking point in negotiations between NSAS and the administrators. The FLA requires that member factories pay the minimum wage of the producing country or the prevailing industry wage, whichever is higher. The living wage, however, would cover all of a family’s basic needs in a given country.

During the vigil, about 25 students sat in a circle and read testimonies from former sweatshop employees and discussed the labor movement. NSAS co-founder Neel Ahuja read a story about worker abuse in Bolivia.

“It has very real consequences,” said Ahuja, a Weinberg sophomore. “It’s a scene that’s being repeated in thousands of factories around the globe. It’s about a very human impact.”

Earlier in the day, NSAS members delivered a petition signed by 3,570 individuals — mostly students, they said — to the office of University President Henry Bienen.

The eight NSAS supporters who gathered at noon to deliver the petition were disappointed to find that Bienen was away at a conference, and could not respond to them in person.

Some students at the vigil expressed frustration with administrators, who have said they will consider joining the WRC when the organization clarifies their factory monitoring policies and definition of living wage.

NSAS co-founder Desiree Evans read aloud the testimony of a student involved with United Students Against Sweatshops: “I’m sick and tired of administrators sitting on their asses and feeding us lines about their hands being tied.”

Evans, a Medill freshman, then turned to an appreciative audience and quipped, “That sounds familiar.”

Although NSAS hopes its petition sways the administration, Bienen told The Daily earlier this month that a petition would not necessarily impel NU to join the WRC.

“That’s not how I make my decisions in any case,” Bienen said. “I don’t have a plebiscite on every issue. I don’t do it on salary raises, I don’t do it on the hiring of faculty. On consequential issues, we don’t take student votes.”

But Ahuja said NU should listen to students.

“I understand that the president has to do what is best for the university in his eyes,” he said. “But when there’s such broad-based support in the community, in the end it’s going to be in the best interests of the university to work with the people it services — the students.”

Another administrator concern is that by joining such organizations, the university becomes needlessly politicized.

“We are not a socially active organization qua university,” Bienen said. “Student groups can be — that’s great. Faculty groups can be, or individuals. We say, ‘You have the freedom to do these things.’ But we also say that the university itself is an organization that distances itself from all kinds of issues.

“This comes very close to it, but the reason we decided to join the FLA and the reason we’re thinking about joining the WRC is because we’re producing something which says NU. So we saw that as a special issue.”

But Ahuja said because sweatshops are of such concern, NU should risk politicization.

“This is a very special case,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that only happens once a decade at NU — maybe not even that. If someone wanted to squash this movement, they would sign the WRC right now. If the administration and the Board of Trustees keep objecting to the WRC and not give us a cogent argument why, students are going to be outraged.”