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online extras :: MARCH 02, 2005

Student groups bring sweat straight to MSU administration

By JOHN STEGMAIER

“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” The call and response resounded through the first floor of MSU’s Administration Building Feb. 24, when student groups chanted and danced their discontent with the university’s handling of labor policies on licensed apparel.

Shortly after 2 p.m., tunes from the “Selena” soundtrack signified the start of the protest as students began to shake, strut, and salsa in the building’s lobby. About 30 members from the Students for Economic Justice joined the Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlan to protest the university’s current non-membership status with the Worker Rights Consortium.
 

“We want to make sure our presence is known on campus for promoting the university to adopt a strong code of conduct for worker’s rights,” said Francesco Aimone, International Studies junior. “And besides, dancing is fun.”

Students compared their own sweat to the sweatshop conditions the Consortium monitors. “Boy! All this dancing sure is tiring, but I bet it’s not as tiring as working in a factory 16 hours a day,” said one perspiring protestor.

Within minutes, MSU police officers arrived and informed the protestors that administrators in the above offices were aware of their spirited presence below.

As part of an ongoing five-year effort, the students will urge President Simon and other university administrators to join the Workers Rights Consortium at a meeting scheduled for March 18. Students for Economic Justice will be represented at the meeting.

MSU’s Vice President of Student Affairs and Services Lee June declined to give specifics on why the university has not joined the Consortium, but emphasized President Simon’s receptiveness to meet with the Students for Economic Justice and other interested parties.

The Worker Rights Consortium is a non-profit organization created by college and university administrators, students and labor experts. It lends eyes and ears to schools seeking to insure their licensed apparel has been manufactured in a manner respecting the basic rights of workers. Working with labor experts within the U.S. and abroad, the group investigates factory conditions and publishes its findings on the Internet.

When violations are found, the organization works with the schools, U.S. based retailers, and local workers to correct them. Among the 134 schools affiliated with the Consortium are nine Big Ten universities, including Illinois, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan.

Michigan State currently belongs to another non-profit monitor of international manufacturing, the Fair Labor Association. The student activists object to the affiliation, however, arguing that the Association grants too much power to corporations, lacks commitment to public disclosure and accountability, and shuts apparel workers out of its organizational structure and monitoring programs.

Among the areas of concern for the student group includes working conditions that fail to meet a living wage, provide inadequate safety standards, ignore women’s rights and permit child and forced labor.

At the protest, MSU police asked students to stand clear of doorways, granting permission to play two more songs. During these negotiations, Students for Economic Justice spokesman and graduate student Jim Ridolfo elaborated on the group’s argument against the university. “The fact that it has been five years and this is still going on is unacceptable,” said Ridolfo. “As Michigan’s land grant school, MSU has an ethical responsibility to set an example on workers’ rights.”

University spokesman Terry Denbow said discussions were continuing with the Students for Economic Justice and Movimiento about how to best approach the issue. “We are continuing to evaluate the possibility of joining the WRC,” he said. “So far, meetings with the SEJ have been informative, constructive and many voices have been listened to.”

 


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