Members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition celebrated their victory after University of Texas at Austin President William Powers on Wednesday announced that the university will join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC).
Powers’ announcement reverses earlier statements in which he said that UT could not afford to join WRC, an international organization that monitors and takes action to halt abuses in garment sweatshops that produce t-shirts and other apparel bearing the logos of university and professional sports teams.
“Making UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition (showed) the largest collegiate apparel producer in the world the power of students acting in solidarity with workers when we fight to win,” said Billy Yates on the coalition’s Facebook page.
A spokesperson for Powers tried to downplay the role that the coalition’s militant and sometimes confrontational actions played in his decision.
“We had some very productive conversations with the students and just decided it was in our best interest to have two groups looking at workers’ rights,” said Tara Doolittle UT’s director of media outreach to Alcalde, the UT alumni organization’s newsletter.
But it’s unlikely that Powers would have had this conversation with sweatshop opponents without their persistent efforts to mobilize support for WRC.
The coalition organized demonstrations, rallies, and teach-ins throughout the school year. On April 18, members of the coalition were arrested after they staged a sit-in at Powers office when he refused to talk with them about joining WRC. Less than two weeks later, the students staged another sit-in.
After the first sit-in, Powers said that he would talk to coalition members, but not to anyone arrested in the April sit-in. Coalition members said that they were willing to talk but not under the conditions proposed by Powers.
Somewhere along the line, Powers appears to have changed his position. The Austin American-Statesman reports that one of the participants in the recent meeting was Bianca Hinz-Foley, who was arrested at the sit-in.
During the meeting, Hinz-Foley described what she learned on a recent trip to Honduras and El Salvador where she met and talked to garment workers. They told her of low pay, forced overtime, and sexual abuse.
One reason that Hinz-Foley and other coalition members want UT to join WRC is that it is an independent organization that has effectively fought sweatshop abuse. For example in 2010, it helped organize a campaign to make Nike pay severance pay to Honduras garment workers who lost their jobs when a Nike contractor shut down its plant and refused workers their severance pay owed them by law.
Students at the University of Wisconsin played a key role in that victory. They convinced university administrators to terminate the university’s licensing agreement with Nike if the company did not make good on what it owed the workers.
Before this week’s decision to join WRC, UT had said that it did not need to join WRC because it already belonged to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), another group that monitors sweatshops.
The Making UT Sweatshop Free Coalition and other anti-sweatshop groups said that FLA, a group set up by the garment and fashion industry in the 1990s after stories of sweatshop abuse came to light, has been slow to act when reported sweatshop abuse conflicts too much with the interests of the industry.
UT will remain a member of the Fair Labor Association after it joins WRC.
Back in April, UT officials said that the university couldn’t afford the $50,000 annual fee it would cost to join WRC because state funding reductions were forcing the university to cut its budget.
After the recent announcement to join WRC, university officials said that they would pay the fee out of money that UT’s athletic department receives under licensing agreements with Nike, Russell and other sporting apparel companies.