Activists to come together at NSAS-hosted conference

Dan Schwerin

In the culmination of 10 months of petitions and protests of campus labor issues, Northwestern Students Against Sweatshops will host a regional conference starting today to network with fellow activists and draw attention to their cause.

The first-ever United Students Against Sweatshops Midwest Regional Conference, which organizers expect will draw 200 students from about 15 Midwestern schools, will focus on students’ efforts to persuade their schools’ administrators to join the Workers Rights Consortium.

“The conference is going to be tremendous in terms of our campaign and in terms of networking,” said Desiree Evans, an NSAS co-founder. “We’re still a young campaign, but we’re maturing very quickly.”

USAS encourages schools to abandon the Fair Labor Association, a sweatshop-monitoring group to which NU belongs, in favor of the WRC. Unlike the larger and more established FLA, the WRC does not cooperate with the corporations it monitors and calls for a living wage to be paid to all workers.

The living wage has been a contentious issue at NU, with administrators calling it poorly defined. To convince schools of its merit, organizers have scheduled a presentation by the Olympic Living Wage Project at 2:45 p.m. Saturday in Fisk Hall. Two activists will describe the two months they spent in Indonesia attempting to live on the wages of a Nike factory worker.

The weekend also will feature workshops and discussions of global labor issues and will begin at 2 p.m. today with an affiliated protest by NU’s newest protest group – the Prison Moratorium Project, which protests the investments of NU’s food-service contractor, Sodexho Marriott, in private prison companies.

A Growing Movement

PMP organizer Catherine Learned said the group scheduled its first protest for the conference to benefit from the high profile of NSAS, the campus’ most visible activist group.

NSAS – and the activist movement surrounding it – largely is the product of three committed activists: Medill sophomores Evans and Peter Micek, and Weinberg sophomore Neel Ahuja.

“This group of sophomores has a lot of passion,” said Learned, a Medill sophomore.

The progressive trio enrolled at NU two months before the November 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, where protests and mass demonstrations inaugurated a new activist movement.

Paul Loeb, the Seattle-based author of “Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus,” said the WTO protests gave mainstream media attention to an anti-globalization movement that had been building since the mid-1990s.

The dramatic pictures from the Seattle protests inspired young people across the country to fight against “huge, seemingly unmovable monoliths,” Loeb said.

“We won in Seattle, and that doesn’t happen often,” Micek said. “It became something of a rallying cry.”

Wake-up Call

In the wake of the Seattle protests, then-freshmen Micek, Evans and Ahuja rejuvenated Peace Project, a relic of 1980s protests against apartheid and nuclear weapons. The membership rolls of the campus activist organization were dwindling, and the few student activist leaders were graduating.

But Evans said that in the months after the WTO protests, there was “a buzz on campuses, an atmosphere of activity – it was contagious.”

On Feb. 20, the group got what Evans called “a wake-up call.” That morning, police at the University of Wisconsin broke up an 89-hour anti-sweatshop sit-in, arresting almost 60 protesters. Evans, Micek and Ahuja then decided to join the anti-sweatshop movement and conceived NSAS, which held its first meeting April 6.

Connected to activists on other campuses through the USAS umbrella group and a national e-mail listserv, NSAS started petitioning administrators and educating NU on the labor issues that were making headlines nationwide.

Evans said activist options are more limited at private universities than they are at larger, more diverse public institutions.

“You can’t really get as aggressive,” she said, because many NU students tend to be “apathetic and elitist.”

Micek characterized the NU student body as “a large community willing to get involved but maybe not totally comfortable (with activism).”

‘Our Own Movement’

Nonetheless, NU activism undeniably has increased since the WTO protests and the founding of NSAS. Allen Streicker of University Archives, who as a graduate student took part in NU’s anti-Vietnam War protests, said the new activist movement probably is the most significant since the mid-’70s.

But Streicker said the current activist movement pales in comparison to the movement that culminated in an eight-day strike by NU students and faculty in May 1970.

“Could (sweatshops) bring out 5,000 people on a Saturday afternoon?” he asked.

Loeb, however, said comparing today’s movement to those of 1968 or 1970 is misguided. Today is more similar to 1966 or 1967 in its development of a grassroots movement, he said.

“If you take the absolute height of the ’60s, it’s true that there were more people involved (then),” he said. “But if you compare most of the ’60s, there are a lot more students involved now and a lot more widely.”

And though today’s activists often refer to the mythic ’60s when talking about mass demonstrations, they strive to distance themselves from past movements.

“We’ve learned a lot from the ’60s,” Micek said. “But we’re trying to fashion less of a peace-and-love abstract thing and more of a concrete fight. We don’t have this Marxist outlook, this fuzzy dream that someday soon there’s going to be a revolution – I think we’re more cynical than that.”

He said the new student movement had more in common with the American labor movements of the early 20th century, translating larger issues into local concerns.

“This campaign is as local as the shirt on your back,” he said.

Evans agreed.

“Each movement becomes its own movement,” she said. “We do learn a lot from what our ’60s predecessors did, but we’ve built our own movement.”