NU to join WRC, stay in FLA

Rani Gupta

Northwestern Students Against Sweatshops members could finally return to their beds Monday after administrators announced that NU will join the Worker Rights Consortium.

Eugene Sunshine, vice president for business and finance, told members of NSAS that the university will join the WRC, a group that monitors factory working conditions, while still maintaining affiliation with the Fair Labor Association.

The group ended its weeklong campout at Library Plaza because they said the decision satisfied their demands.

NSAS members cheered and hugged each other in celebration after the three members who met with Sunshine announced NU’s decision.

“Are you serious?” one member said. “Tell us the catch!”

Sunshine said the major factor in the decision was a WRC change in policy that no longer requires licensees to adhere to a living wage.

“The one major stumbling block has been removed,” said Sunshine, who said he has long admired the WRC’s stance on issues such as equality for women and workers’ right to unionize.

NSAS members brought the change in WRC policy to Sunshine and Director of University Services Brian Peters’ attention two weeks ago.

Sunshine and Peters verified that NU would not have to adopt a living wage policy Friday after Peters attended a WRC conference in Chicago. Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, alsohas sent e-mails confirming the change in policy.

Sunshine said NU has always been reluctant to commit to a living wage requirement.

“We’ve been consistent,” he said. “It’s the WRC that’s changed policies.”

Many NSAS members said the events of last week, which included the campout, a rally and a one-day fast, affected the administration’s decision.

“I am as sure of that as I am of anything I’ve ever known,” said Chris Sherman, group member and Weinberg sophomore.

Medill sophomore and NSAS co-founder Pete Micek said the decision was influenced by other colleges’ campaigns to join the WRC, especially by Harvard University, where students are camping out to protest the wages paid to university employees.

“(The NU administration) doesn’t want another Harvard to happen here, that’s for sure,” Micek said.

But Sunshine said the events of the past week didn’t “necessarily” affect the administration’s decision.

“The issue was important to us before the rally and it’s important to us after the rally,” he said. “I don’t think it added to the seriousness, because we already took it seriously.”

But Sunshine also praised the group’s maturity.

“I’m very complimentary of this group for the seriousness with which they’ve treated this issue and continue to treat this issue,” Sunshine said.

NSAS co-founder Neel Ahuja said the group will continue to address labor issues. The group is bringing living-wage expert Ruth Rosenbaum to speak on Thursday.

Sunshine said if the WRC had maintained its living wage requirement, NU would not have joined.

“We’re not at all convinced about the living wage,” he said. “There is serious disagreement about whether it hurts or helps the objective.”

Some students and faculty also expressed concern about the living wage.

Economics lecturer Mark Witte said a living wage harms the very workers it is meant to help.

“The problem is that low-wage workers receive low wages because they don’t have opportunity for other employment and haven’t proven themselves to be productive workers,” Witte said.

He said companies may move factories to countries where “wages and production tend to be higher.”

Even if companies don’t move location, Witte said, current workers would lose their jobs.

But Ahuja, a Weinberg junior, said the group still supports the idea of a living wage and plans to research the issue, making sure to address administration concerns.

“The issue isn’t as simple as the administration or others who criticize the living wage make it out to be,” Ahuja said.

The group also will discuss the university’s current membership in the FLA, which NU helped to form in 1999. NSAS members were divided in their opinions about the FLA.

“I feel the FLA is not a very good organization and may misinform people to an extent,” Sherman said.

Medill sophomore Desiree Evans said the university’s affiliation with the FLA “does bother me. But we’re doing it step by step.”

Sunshine said the FLA is “off to an excellent start,” especially in regards to their training of the non-governmental organizations that will investigate factories. He also said the FLA’s connections with corporations will help improve working conditions.

“History has shown that the most likely way to get success is to bring licensees into the process,” he said.

NSAS members said they still had work ahead of them, and would research issues and monitor NU’s compliance with the WRC.

“Just because we got on the WRC, the life of the ordinary sweatshop worker in Indonesia doesn’t change,” said Jeremy Thal, a Music junior.

But for now, members said, a short rest is in order.

“Taking a break for us is not spending nine hours a day on this,” Ahuja said. “Three hours a day is fine.”