The Common Good
September-October 1999

Economic Justice 101

by Emily Dossett | September-October 1999

Students on numerous campuses are lobbying for living wage policies.

On June 10, 1999, Harvard Yard overflowed with more than 6,000 graduates, their families, and professors. Raucous chants and victory yells mingled with the speeches and solemn conferral of degrees; banners and balloons festooned the grandiose buildings. As the ceremony progressed, however, another type of banner appeared, trailing an airplane that circled above the yard: "Harvard Needs a Living Wage."

The Harvard Living Wage Campaign agitated through the year for a living wage for all university employees, particularly security guards. For many of the students participating, this was their first taste of "activism." While Harvard’s community service programs have long been a mainstay of campus life, attempts to change the campus’s economic conditions at a systemic level have been sparse.

But such efforts are now growing, and not just at Harvard. In March, Duke became the first university to require that all clothing bearing the university logo must be produced according to a "code of conduct." The code includes 10 resolutions vital to fair labor, including a living wage and benefits, reasonable hours and overtime compensation, safe working conditions, elimination of child or other forced labor, and protections of worker rights and dignity. The code is advocated by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a network of activists on dozens of campuses nationwide.

Unlike many off-campus campaigns, student movements tend to link the living wage and sweatshop issues. These campaigns recognize that opposing sweatshops means providing for reasonable wages, if apparel workers are to receive fair treatment and compensation for their work.

On April 15, campuses from Rhode Island to Michigan to California staged protests demanding that "the apparel which bears their school name be made under humane conditions and livable wages" (from the USAS mission statement). One notable success is the University of California, which recently passed a code-of-conduct resolution. With 10 campuses and hundreds of thousands of students, the UC system’s action will have far-reaching effects on the logo garment industry.

Religious organizations such as the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and labor unions such as UNITE have joined forces with students to present living wage and anti-sweatshop demands in some communities. This teaches students about justice efforts beyond the campus walls, while infusing community campaigns with fresh energy.

And for novice campaigns such as Harvard’s, students are showing savvy in their organizing. As the 1999 graduation drew to a close, Living Wage Campaign participants, holding huge red balloons, rose in unison and quietly walked out of the commencement address—which was being delivered by Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan. —Emily Dossett

Emily Dossett, a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, worked with Call to Renewal this summer. She is a first-year medical student at the University of California Los Angeles. For more information on anti-sweatshop campaigns, contact the National Labor Committee, 275 Seventh Ave., 15th Floor, New York, NY 10001; (212) 242-3002; nlc@nlcnet.org; www.nlcnet.org; or visit the USAS Web site: www.asm.wisc.edu/usas.
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