Local and Iowa
A Stand Against
IOWA CITY, Iowa
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
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.
STEPPING UP THE 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.