Students and Labor Together

Against the Current, No. 87, July/August 2000

Molly McGrath

ON BEHALF OF my fellow campus organizers I would like to thank the AFL-CIO leadership and all of you for this opportunity to speak with you.

I have a new slogan for you: “Whose University?  Our University!!!”

That’s what we were chanting three weeks ago when I and hundreds other University of Wisconsin students and workers took over our administration building.

We occupied the building for four days. We demanded an end to university profiteering off the labor of sweatshop workers.  We demanded a voice in the governance of our university.  But the Chancellor responded with violence.  Fifty-four of us were arrested.  We’re facing charges.  But we’re not going to give in!

The demands we posed in Wisconsin reflect a growing movement taking place on campuses today.

Most often it is portrayed as a movement of students against sweatshops.

Internally, however, this movement is rapidly changing.  It is becoming part of the movement of global solidarity against the rule of corporate power.

The protests in Seattle showed us there is an even larger movement brewing.  Students and educators are a key part of these efforts.  All who are joined to the movement demand that our voices be heard.

This movement is the voice of democracy.

It is the voice of moral conscience.

And it is the voice of workers’ rights.

Last August I journeyed to Jakarta, Indonesia, to survey workplace conditions.  In Jakarta, it was made evident to me that there are more than just do-gooders who are mobilizing around these issues.

Workers are organizing and striking all over Indonesia, and around the world, for our rights, and for our voices to be heard.

Most often people in the United States don’t hear about the grim side of corporate globalization.  Or, as we call it on our campus, global corporatization.

Corporatization is a trend which has left millions of workers with governments that are unable to assist them in conditions of starvation and poverty.

Corporatization is a trend that has left two hundred million more people today living in absolute poverty-on less than one dollar a day-than a decade ago.

Corporatization is a trend which is destroying education, welfare, health and child care, and replacing them with a society of corporate servitude.

Only when the message surfaces above the public relations battles that “free trade” is nothing more than the transnational right of corporations to overturn public laws will the voice of moral conscience, democracy, and workers’ rights be heard.

And our voices must be heard.  As Ralph Nader recently said:

“Significant, enduring change will require an institutionalized shift of power from corporations and government to ordinary Americans.  While politicians have now made an art of populist symbolism, virtually none have a serious agenda to strengthen Americans in their key roles as voters, taxpayers, consumers, workers, and shareholders.”

In USAS, we have been successful in finding leverage to start this shift in power.  We’ve demanded that our colleges and universities adopt strong Codes of Conduct to end sweatshop conditions where university licensed apparel is manufactured.  To get our college’s business, these corporations will be required to publicly disclose the locations of their sweatshops, to pay a living wage, and to guarantee basic women’s rights.

We do not stop at Codes of Conduct.  We’ve also been vocal critics of corporate rule, and we’re forcing a debate on campuses regarding the power and failures of the corporate sector.  Not only is “free trade” eliminating the ability of governments to assist their people, it encourages authoritarian governments that repress worker rights.

At the urgent pushing of students in USAS, an organization called the Workers’ Rights Consortium has been formed.

The WRC is an organization that forces worker rights abuses into the public eye. It empowers communities to strengthen their own capacity to create safe workplace conditions.

The WRC will do what existing international institutions have failed to do -create sustainable global labor standards that work for working people.  And it is up to us-organized labor-to support this initiative.

Our recent occupation at UW-Madison did more than cause problems for our administration.  And it did more than force the administration to support the Workers Rights Consortium.

We raised consciousness in our campus community about the current race to the bottom, showing that instances where people are forced to work in sweatshops in Indonesia create instances where people are pressured to work without benefits in the United States.

We raised consciousness about the urgent need for international solidarity.

And we raised consciousness about everyone’s responsibility to be the voice of moral conscience, democracy and workers’ rights, as the consolidation of corporate power continues under the guise of “free trade”.

Now you know that organized labor is not alone in this fight.

Organized students are with you!

Molly MgGrath is a student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she serves on the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Coordinating Council.  These remarks were prepared for a Plenary Session of the AFL-CIO’s Working Women Conference in mid-March, after the victorious sit-in at UW (for an account see “Sitting Down for Justice” by Rae Vogeler and Harry Richardson (ATC #86).

ATC 87, July-August 2000