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International Solidarity —
UE Local and Iowa
Students Take
A Stand Against


University of Iowa students occupy an administration building in their fight against sweatshops ...

University of Iowa students occupied an administration building to pursue their campaign against university use of sweatshop products.

The revival of the coalition between student and labor activists became dramatically evident on the University of Iowa campus this spring as students here became involved in Students Against Sweatshops (SAS).

A national organization of campus-based opposition to sweatshop labor, SAS is supported by many unions, including the United Steelworkers, SEIU, AFSCME, IBEW, AFGE and UE. On the Iowa campus, SAS is backed by UE Local 896-COGS, which represents UI graduate employees.

This student movement is pressing university administrations to withdraw from the Fair Labor Association, a corporate-dominated factory monitoring group, instead join the Worker Rights Consortium, and agree to a code of conduct for apparel licenses. While campus apparel is a small part of the entire sweatshop-produced clothing market, it is a crucial battleground since it is in the public eye and vulnerable to pressure.


UI-SAS members began last year to petition the university administration. After months of workshops, committee meetings and forums — all with little or no effect — the UI chapter of SAS decided to step up the pressure, with key participation from UE Local 896-COGS members. At 2 p.m. on April 3, 15 SAS members, including COGS member Ned Bertz, began a sit-in in the office of University President Mary Sue Coleman. They were bodily removed from her office three hours later, but continued to occupy the building around the clock for six days, living in the main hallway.

Local 896-COGS members in the dozens — teachers of rhetoric, history, English, communication studies, journalism, political science, geography and more — brought their students to learn about sweatshops and their connection to university-licensed apparel. As a result, SAS members talked to more than 1,000 undergraduate students during the occupation. Other COGS members played important "background" roles by helping supply, support and give rest breaks to the main core of SAS members occupying Jessup Hall.

In addition, SAS members held public rallies and marches during the six days, drawing even more attention to sweatshop issues. Local labor union members, COGS members and community supporters attended almost daily rallies outside Jessup Hall to keep the public eye on the situation. The largest rally, on April 6, brought more than 250 people from all over eastern Iowa. Among those attending were members of other UE locals as well as those of SEIU, AFSCME, IBEW, AFT — and more than 40 Steelworkers who came by bus from Des Moines.

Eventually, the administration agreed to join the Workers Rights Consortium and draft a code of conduct, but refused to withdraw from the Fair Labor Association.

Near midnight on Saturday, April 8, more than 20 SAS members were "evicted" from Jessup Hall in a coordinated raid by campus security officers. Five SAS members were arrested, including COGS member Bertz, and charged with criminal trespass. The University has refused to drop the charges, despite its own Human Rights Committee’s plea for withdraw. UI obtained a July trial date, guaranteeing that many SAS supporters will be out of town. All five were sent letters threatening them with possible expulsion.


An important consequence of this activity is the strengthening of student-labor ties throughout the state. This process began with the organization of Local 896-COGS, which built bridges between university students and teachers and local labor union leaders, and continued with UE’s support of UI Hospital nurses in their union campaign a year ago. SAS and COGS members attended the Des Moines Steelworkers’ strike rally in May, and the ties between COGS and SAS and the Campaign for Labor Rights continues to develop.

The struggle is not over. In the next academic year, SAS will continue to pressure the University to withdraw from FLA. And Local 896-COGS expects to continue its work in building solidarity between students and workers at the University and in the region.

UE News - 06/00

Home -> UE News -> 2000 Archives -> Article

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