… well, glasses. And not so much in San Francisco. Oakland. On a plane.
Two weeks ago, I was frantically trying to clear my schedule so I could attend NCOR 2006 (the National Conference on Organized Resistance) in Washington DC. My bosses from my political job were willing to pay for me to go, and the list of workshop/discussion topics looked amazing: globalization, water, pacificism, anarchy, hip hop, racism, gentrification, and much more.
Unfortunately, I had volunteered to sub for a co-worker that Sunday so that he could watch the Superbowl, and shockingly, couldn’t find anyone willing to take that shift from me. So no NCOR for Jake. Stupid professional sports.
So just days later, when I heard about another activist conference the following weekend, I jumped on it. The United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Winter Conference 2006 in San Frnacisco. Been a while since I was a student, but my org was thinking of working with them this year, so I figured I’d go see what they were up to.
Overall, I enjoyed myself. Saw some friends, hung out in SF, met some activists, and got some info. It is certainly uplifting to see so many folks dedicated to fighting the exploitation of thousands of people that they’ll never meet. My college was apathetic as fuck.
It was also interesting seeing this very narrowly focused form of organizing. A large portion of USAS’ campaigns are about making sure that their schools’ merchandise (e.g. t-shirts and caps that say UCLA) are not made in sweatshop conditions. And their prime means to accomplish this is to pressure their administration to affiliate with a labor monitoring organization called the Workers’ Rights Consortium. The WRC then visits all the factories and gathers all the data to make sure that the clothing is made ethical working conditions. It’s kind of a trip; most activism is so open-ended, in tactics, goals and means, but the USAS thing seemed pretty tight.
I went to a workshop called “International Solidarity: What it Means on the Ground” on Friday afternoon. It seemed like an informative topic. There’s someone in another country who’s working conditions suck. You want to help. What the hell can you do? This seemed like it would give some concrete answers.
But I was surprised. The workshop brought in workers from ex-sweatshop factories in Dominican Republic, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, and Kenya. Kuky from Domnican Republic spoke first (with a translator), from a factory called BJ&B. His story started off positively, about how he and his fellows had suffered under their bosses, but had fought back, and with help from USAS, they had managed to unionize their factory. Their lives turned around and things were good. Until.
Sadly, that’s how everyone’s story went. They worked in a sweatshop, fought back, unionized and won. And things were good, until the orders started to dry up. The big clothing companies which had formerly purchased garments from these factories now declared that the newly unionized plants were “too expensive”, and moved their business elsewhere. Kuky told us that when they unionized in 2003, there were 3000 workers at the factory. Now, with the drop in orders, jobs have been cut back to 600. Kuky asked us to use our power to pressure companies like Nike and Reebok to place orders with his factory again. I was kind of stunned.
Which led to the New USAS Campaign. Now, instead of pressuring universities to affiliate with the WRC, they will pressure universities into agreeing to only purchase merchandise from unionized factories, so that workers aren’t punished for forming a union.
This was really depressing. On the one hand, seeing these people five feet away from you telling you how much their lives improved with their union made you feel how necessary such work was. Here was a real live person telling you so. Yet at the same time, I’ve never been more convinced that utterly revolutionary change is needed. People can fight to organize for years, facing all sorts of opposition, retaliation and violence. Yet their win can be overrun in a heartbeat, as companies just look down the next rung on the race to the bottom.
At one point, the phrase “their victims of their own success” entered my mind. Then I beat it back, horrified and angry at myself. These people are not victims of success, they are victims of greedy corporate bastards, exactly as they were before. Frankly, we’re on a path where the logical end is that all manufacturing jobs are done as cheaply as possible, most likely by forced labor in China.