"a wave of anti-corporate zeal not seen on campuses since the 1960s"
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Wed May 31 06:08:24 MDT 2000
Published Tuesday, May 30, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News
Campus activism surging
BY PATRICK MAY
EUGENE, Ore. -- It was the Shootout at the Swoosh Corral.
On one side, Phil Knight, big-moneyed alum of the University of Oregon and
CEO of Nike, symbol for many of sweatshop labor and the company contracted
to make the school's apparel.
On the other, activists on the anti-globalization warpath, demanding the
university force its multinational partners like Nike to clean up their
In the middle, university president and longtime Knight buddy Dave
When the smoke cleared last month at what critics dubbed Nike University,
Knight had taken back a $30 million donation to the University of Oregon.
Frohnmayer was nursing a gaping public relations wound. And the students
were drunk with victory.
Steeped in a legacy of protest stretching back to the Vietnam War, Eugene
stands at the vanguard of a burgeoning student movement. Emboldened by
success at shutting down talks of the World Trade Organization in Seattle,
and ready to do battle this summer at the Democratic National Convention in
Los Angeles, activists from the Bay Area to Boston are riding a wave of
anti-corporate zeal not seen on campuses since the 1960s.
``Students are frustrated with conventional politics they feel have been
captured by big-money interests,'' says Michael Dreiling, an assistant
professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. ``So some feel protest
is the only way to effect change.''
Anti-sweatshop activists across the nation are pressuring college
administrators to join the Worker Rights Consortium, a fledgling watchdog
group founded by students to monitor overseas factories where collegiate
apparel is made.
Manufacturers like Nike -- which enjoys an all-sports, head-to-toe contract
with the University of Oregon and 15 other schools -- would rather their
college partners join the industry-sponsored Fair Labor Association. The
university's decision to go with the WRC not only outraged Knight and hit
the University of Oregon in the pocketbook, it also pumped up the student
insurgency across the land.
``The university historically has been the birthplace of social progress,''
says student leader Laura Close, a 19-year-old sophomore calling for an
independent audit of factories where Nike and others put their logos on
sweatshirts and track uniforms. ``With this Nike thing, we've shown we can
raise our voices and bring about change in the global economy.''
`Center of anarchism'
Rebellion in Eugene is as time-honored as cheering on the Ducks at Autzen
Stadium. Nude-ins, tofu pâté and Napster music downloading are big here. The
latest bit of street theater offers ``Revolutionary Gardens tours'' and
encourages renters to turn landlords' front lawns into vegetable patches.
``We're getting known as the center of anarchism,'' says Tom Hager, a
university spokesman. ``Eugene activists made a lot of noise in Seattle at
the WTO meeting and loved the attention they got.''
But while outrage over sweatshop labor practices by collegiate apparel
companies has been the gateway issue for most college students, signs of a
broader movement are surfacing. Students are organizing over items as
diverse as tuition increases, environmental degradation and the use of
prison labor by university vendors. At Stanford last week, students rallied
to improve wages for school janitors.
In their eyes, the university has become a window onto a very troubled
``The anti-sweatshop movement is an easy handle for students to grab hold
of,'' says Sarah Jacobson, a soft-spoken geology major at the University of
Oregon who was among those arrested during a sit-in outside Frohnmayer's
office. ``But in the past year, sweatshops have let us see the bigger global
problems, from sexual harassment in the workplace to the growing disparity
between rich and poor.
``This movement goes way beyond logos.''
The pressure on universities over sweatshop labor harkens back to another
movement -- the 1980s campus campaign to force colleges to divest themselves
of stocks in companies that were doing business in South Africa.
The anti-sweatshop pot was first put to boil back in the mid-1990s, when
authorities conducted high-profile raids on American sweatshops. Reports of
human-rights abuses overseas began to stream in on the nightly news.
Talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford landed in the spotlight after revelations
that some of her brand-name clothes had been sewn in sweatshops. But the
brunt of criticism fell to Nike, which found itself under fire for labor
practices in its factories in Southeast Asia.
Nike has fought back ever since. It raised wages at plants in Vietnam and
Indonesia. It boasted how its factories' air and water standards exceeded
those of their host countries. It launched micro-loan and educational
programs for workers. Says spokesman Vada Manager: ``We have nothing to
Yet Nike can't seem to satisfy critics. On college campuses, where licensing
of everything from T-shirts to ashtrays is a $2.5 billion-a-year business,
Nike became a fat target for suburban rebels raised on a logo-obsessed
In 1998, the company known for its swoosh logo joined other garment makers,
the White House, union groups and human-rights activists to create the Fair
Labor Association, an ostensibly autonomous group that would monitor working
conditions in plants here and abroad. But union members bolted and, with the
United Students Against Sweatshops, formed a competing group, the Worker
Rights Consortium. Both are still in formative stages.
But to students, the choice between a business-backed or a labor-supported
watchdog was a no-brainer. ``It never made sense to me,'' says Mitra
Anoushiravani, vice president of the University of Oregon student body, ``to
have a fox monitoring a chicken coop.''
On April 12, after deliberation and consultation with students, faculty and
staff, Frohnmayer decided the university would join the WRC, although Nike's
contract with the school continues uninterrupted until 2003. Knight, who was
not consulted beforehand, has not spoken publicly about his decision to pull
his donation. But the act itself speaks volumes.
Says Jacobson: ``You can't separate Knight from Nike. This was a move to
crush the WRC. But his decision helped clarify for us how far corporations
are willing to go to protect profits.''
Nike, of course, sees things differently. ``We consider the WRC to be
`gotcha' monitoring,'' says company spokesman Scott Reames. ``Instead of
working with us on these problems, they'll come in after the fact to
criticize. We feel that to bring real change, industry has to be involved.''
Lurking in the background, Nike says, is big labor. The WRC board includes
Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. With such a
link to organized labor, Reames says, ``we question how independent the
WRC's methods of monitoring can be. (Organized labor) wants `Made in the
USA' and they don't like the fact that these jobs are going overseas.''
No one disputes the fact labor has become integral to the demonstrations on
campus and at the WTO meeting, where students and steelworkers protested
side by side. Cornell University labor historian Alex Blair says these
budding alliances between middle-class college kids and blue-collar workers
are unprecedented. He attributes them largely to labor reaching out to
students, beginning in 1996 when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney launched the
``Union Summer'' program.
``Just like with the voter-rights campaign in the '60s,'' says Blair,
``students would work six weeks on union campaigns, then go back to campus
and talk about what they'd learned. It got kids thinking about the labor
movement as a place to talk about politics.
``And while there are only a few thousand kids who've done it so far,'' he
says, ``when you're at the birth of a new student movement that gets to be a
Solidarity with other groups is drawing converts to the new activist gospel.
Randy Newnham, a University of Oregon senior studying linguistics and
anthropology, got involved last year while attending the University of
``There's a groundswell of awareness from coast to coast around the
anti-sweatshop campaign,'' he says. ``Once you start looking at global
issues, you see how everything is tied to corporate power and how that power
can undermine democracies everywhere.''
Status quo, he says, is something to be questioned, not accepted blindly.
``You're told, `This is how things are, get used to it.' But I've learned to
take the reins and make things happen. Like we did here with Nike. You make
it an issue, and then you just start pushing.''
With each teach-in or burst of civil disobedience, new recruits answer the
call, even in Silicon Valley, considered by many in the anti-corporate crowd
to be the belly of the beast. Dale Weaver, a graduate student in history at
San Jose State University, returned to college after a series of retail jobs
and found the new spirit of protest to be intoxicating. He handles the
western region for United Students Against Sweatshops; the 30 colleges he
dealt with a year ago have now grown to 50.
``In this valley, where everyone is so damn busy making house payments, you
don't have time to think about things like workers' rights on the other side
of the world,'' says Weaver. ``But at school, you start to read more, hear
other people's opinions, and critique the way things are.
``Pretty soon,'' he says, ``you start to raise your voice.''
Contact Patrick May at pmay at sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5689.
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