NSAS begins camping out for its cause

Rani Gupta

About 70 people rallied in Library Plaza on Monday in support of Northwestern Students Against Sweatshops’ efforts to persuade NU to join the Worker Rights Consortium.

The rally started in Library Plaza with several speeches in support of workers’ rights. Then students marched to Hardin Hall in the Rebecca Crown Center to deliver University President Henry Bienen a petition in support of the WRC.

Starting Sunday night, group members plan to camp out in Library Plaza until the administration joins the WRC, an organization that monitors compliance with labor laws.

Currently NU is a member of the Fair Labor Association, which monitors factories that produce NU apparel. But the group believes that the FLA is made ineffective by its ties to corporations.

Speakers advocating anti-sweatshop policies came from a number of different organizations and backgrounds, including a member of NU Faculty Against Sweatshops, an NU janitor, a representative of University Christian Ministry and a spokesperson from the office of U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

NSAS member Desiree Evans said the excuses experts give for inequal labor conditions are not valid.

“The excuses they give are the same excuses they gave 100 years ago,” said Evans, a Medill sophomore.

All the speeches drew applause, but five members of NSAS who performed an anti-sweatshops cheer elicited the the loudest response.

“This event is definitely serious, but it’s also a celebration of student power,” said Chris Sherman, a group member and Weinberg sophomore. “If it was all morbid and grim, it wouldn’t communicate the vitality of the group very well.”

After the speeches, the group led a march to administrative offices, chanting slogans and briefly stopping traffic on Sheridan Road.

At Hardin Hall, marchers yelled, “Where’s Bienen?” and demanded to deliver to him a petition containing more than 3,600 signatures asking NU to join the WRC.

Three students were allowed in the building. They returned to announce to the crowd that Bienen was not there, but that they had presented the petition to Bienen’s secretary.

Ahuja, a Weinberg junior, said the group members were disappointed that they did not speak to Bienen. But Ahuja he thought they “delivered the message to the administration.”

Evans said administrators should have to answer to the students who pay their salaries.

“These are reasonable demands, yet they have been stalling us for a year and a half now,” Evans said.

But not everyone supports the group’s fight to join the WRC.

McCormick freshman Russ Riggins said he did not want prices of NU merchandise to rise.

“I pay a lot of money to go to this college, and NU sweatshirts and paraphernalia are very expensive,” he said. “I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that I don’t want to pay more.”

Riggins also said student interest in protesting sweatshops is only temporary.

“I do think that it’s just a passing liberal fad that occupies time of the less busy student,” he said.

Much disagreement stems from the WRC’s requirement that members adhere to a “living wage”.

Economics lecturer Mark Witte said he does not know enough about the WRC to evaluate the organization. But he said the living wage is a “very poor idea” because raising wages to “one number made up of arbitrary criteria” would reduce the number of jobs and harm workers.

“Are we smarter than these workers to say they shouldn’t take these jobs?” Witte said.

College Libertarians President Mark Kutzbach, a Weinberg junior, said: “I’ve talked about this issue with other libertarians and economic conservatives. People aren’t opposed to the WRC for what it has to say about workers’ rights, but more for issues like a living wage, which we feel shouldn’t be mandated because we feel it will hurt worker employment.”

Administrators also have expressed concern about the living wage and about WRC’s failure to involve corporations in its monitoring procedures.

On Thursday, members of NSAS met with Eugene Sunshine, senior vice president for business and finance, and Brian Peters, director of university services, to once again NU discuss joining the WRC.

Ahuja said the WRC changed its policies, eliminating the living wage as a requirement for universities to join and establishing ties with corporations, but the administration still would not join.

Sunshine said NU must determine if NSAS has correctly analyzed changes to WRC policy.

“What we promised them is that we would look at the literature they gave us and learn what these written changes meant,” Sunshine said.

To further research the WRC, Sunshine said NU will attend a WRC conference Friday “as an observer.”

Ahuja said group members doubt whether the administration is taking them seriously.

“The signs we got from the meeting with Sunshine were not very positive,” Ahuja said. “We felt ambivalent about whether there was a commitment to a rational dialogue on the part of the administration or whether they were just stalling.”

But Sunshine said it was not possible to provide absolute deadlines because the administration needs time to conduct its research.

“We have followed this issue very carefully and take it very seriously,” Sunshine said. “We promised we would very seriously examine the issue, look at the material, ask questions and reassess based on that.”

NSAS members said they are optimistic that NU will eventually join the WRC.

“I’m confident the administration’s going to come to their senses,” said Jeremy Thal, a Music junior and NSAS member who plans to take part in the campout.

But even if the administration does not immediately respond, NSAS members said the rally achieved its main goal: publicity.

Group member Francisco Lara said the group wanted the rally to impact visiting prospective students.

“Because it’s (Day at NU), we hoped to attract prospectives, so they can see that we as students are interested in these issues,” said Lara, a Music senior.

Sherman said the rally was not meant to educate the crowd about the group’s work.

“We’ve been educating for the last year, working within the system and going through the proper channels,” he said. “(The rally) is to demonstrate student power and democratic power.”