The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Students Turn Up Pressure Over Labor Rights

by Jessica Azulay

Apr. 13, 2006 – Student activists across the country this week are holding local protests and educational events to highlight the role their schools play in workers’ rights and wages.

The activities, part of the seventh annual National Student-Labor Week of Action, mark a growing university accountability movement that has united students, organized labor and immigrants.

Tuesday, eighteen students occupied the foyer of University of California–Berkeley’s California Hall demanding the state university system sign on to an agreement designed to prevent the use of sweatshop labor in making school apparel. Police arrested the students, who, according to a University press release, represented several schools from the UC system. The students all received charges of trespassing.

Another ten students were cited for trespassing after a 12-hour-long protest at UC–Riverside, according to press releases from students and the university.

The activists were members of the national group United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which has successfully pressured campuses all over the country to sign agreements designed to ensure factory workers’ rights.

Though the University of California already has a code of conduct for the companies that produce its sports apparel, USAS is pushing for stronger anti-sweatshop measures. By signing on to the organization’s Designated Supplier Program, the university would be committed to dealing only with apparel factories that have been approved by an independent board, which evaluates employers’ respect for workers’ rights.

In Florida yesterday, seven students at the University of Miami joined striking janitors in a fast – their latest tactic for winning a living wage and collective bargaining rights for janitors working at the school.

Student and hunger-striker Tonya Aquino told the local NBC affiliate: "I'm a senior. I'm an honors student. I'm a student leader. I'm Greek. I'm a volunteer. I go out on the weekends to party, and I pull all-nighters. And now I'm starving. I am so hungry for change on this campus."

The janitors walked out seven weeks ago, and ten of them intensified their campaign last week by going on a hunger strike. Two have since reportedly been hospitalized. As previously reported by The NewStandard, with the support of students and community members, the janitors have already won a raise and health insurance for all campus contractors. The protesters continue to push the university and Boston-based contractor UNICCO Service Corporation for better wages and the right to form a union on their own terms.

Several student actions have targeted Coca-Cola for its poor labor-rights record in Colombia and environmental destruction in India. Student protesters at Harvard last week demanded that administrators terminate the school’s contract with the beverage giant.

Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky, leader of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement, told the campus newspaper Harvard Crimson that the administration had turned down the group’s request for a meeting to discuss the Coca-Cola contract.

"If they’re not ready to listen to us, they’re going to have to listen to the public conscience of the university," he said.

Last week, students in more than a dozen cities protested McDonald’s over the wages and working conditions of tomato-pickers employed by the restaurant’s suppliers. The students were demonstrating in solidarity with the Real Rights Tour, organized by the Florida-based farmworkers’ group Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Last year, the Coalition secured an unprecedented agreement from Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum Brands, to raise tomato-pickers’ pay by one cent per pound.

The workers are traveling the country to speak out about their low wages, exhausting working conditions and crowded living quarters.

At a Chicago rally outside the fast-food chain’s flagship restaurant site, Immokalee worker Lucas Benitez told Free Speech Radio News: "You are working the whole day – sometimes ten, twelve hours a day. And you come back home around 8 o’clock. If you pick 125 buckets you make 50 dollars, and this represents two tons of tomatoes. ... When they buy the tomatoes, or when they buy the hamburgers, sometimes it's a cheap price for the hamburgers, but somebody pays – we pay! – for this cheap price for this food."

According to the Student Labor Action Project, which coordinated the protests, students demonstrated at McDonald’s restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin; Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; Durham, North Carolina; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan; Louisville, Kentucky; Notre Dame and Indianapolis, Indiana; Normal/Bloomington and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois; Atlanta, Georgia; Orlando and Gainesville, Florida; Washington, DC; and San Bernadino, California.

Those actions were among more than 170 protests, teach-ins and other student-led activities listed on the SLAP website.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the April 13, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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