“We are gathered here today in mourning for the death of BJ&B, a garment factory… long a symbol within the anti-sweatshop movement, a concrete testament to the power of student and worker solidarity.” —Eulogy from mock funeral of Domincan Republican garment factory, held at UW
On a cherry-blossom spring day, bagpipes in full mourn, the members of University of Washington Student Labor Action Project (their tagline: “Students and Workers United to SLAP Corporate Greed”) held a wake for the recent closure of the BJ&B factory in the Dominican Republic — the only unionized factory in the region.
The event began with an eulogy: “We are gathered here today in mourning for the death of BJ&B, a garment factory… long a symbol within the anti-sweatshop movement, a concrete testament to the power of student and worker solidarity.”
Dressed in black, carrying a tombstone, the wake processed through campus and into President Mark Emmert's office on Red Square, where members appealed for the school to stand up for sweatshop-free labor.
"We're fighting for human rights standards. Poverty leads to conflict," said Masha Burina, UW SLAP member. "It's easy to look away."
Rod Palmquist, who delivered the eulogy dressed as a preacher, visited non-union factories in Guatemala last summer and heard testimonials about the working conditions. "You have to fight for a bathroom break. A pregnant female worker was feeling woozy but wasn't allowed to get water or use the bathroom. She fainted, and on the way to the hospital, lost her child."
BJ&B's contracts dwindled after its 2003 unionization: Reebok/Adidas pulled out in 2004, Nike's orders slowed, and the workforce was dropped from 1,600 to around 350 at February's closure.
According to the Workers' Rights Consortium, Nike cited slower production rates, higher cost, and decreasing demand for a particular hat produced by BJ&B as reason for its withdrawl in late February. The situation was not transparent, says the WRC — Nike refused to produce information corroborating its claims.
The WRC analysis links these complaints to the unionization: without forced overtime, production was slowed. The factory owner, South Korea’s Yupoong Inc., had incentive to shift contracts to its more profitable Vietnamese and Bangladeshi factories. Universities have a powerful bargaining tool they could use on behalf of workers: the exclusive rights to license a factory to manufacture their logo-bearing merchandise. Last year, UW sold just under $4 million worth of apparel.
SLAP is proposing that all UW-licensed garment workers be entitled to a living wage through the Designated Suppliers Program. The DSP represents an attempt to consolidate the influence of the $4 billion-a-year university apparel market and reward unionized factories with longer-term, stable contracts. This prevents the factory from being subject to the cut-and-run tactics that closed BJ&B. Participating schools, which include Duke and the University of California systems, agree to absorb the cost of paying a living wage, an expected raise in retail prices of 1 to 6 percent, according to SLAP.
The decision to join the DSP rests with the UW Licensing Advisory Committee. Norm Arkans, of the LAC, says the deliberations will take all quarter. “We need to assess what the impact would be on manufacturers and workers, and try to understand why some of our peer universities have decided to go down this path and why others have decided not to.”
UW SLAP will be conducting demonstrations throughout the spring to support the DSP proposal.
By CHRIS MILLER, Contributing Writer
SLAP’s online petition is at http://students.washington.edu/uwslap/.
For entire issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/04/04/apr-4-2007-entire-issue