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May 17, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Their voices carry through the MU Bookstore with the hurried sounds of anticipation. They walk past the racks of black and gold and rows of neatly folded T-shirts. These eight students bounce downstairs, past the textbook shelves and through the “employees only” doors. They approach the administration reception desk.
All are part of the newly established MU chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops; they’re told to wait in a seating area until MU Bookstore Director Sherry Pollard is available. And when she is, the students file in and take up every seat in the conference room.
The evening before, the founder and president of the group, Angela Pagán, sat on her living room floor facing a small group of supporters. “It’s not really a discussion with them,” she said. “It’s a social justice intervention.”
Each student in USAS-MU is working toward the goal of getting the bookstore to carry a clothing brand that will guarantee the respect of workers’ rights and ultimately create a better industry.
USAS is a national network of student activists that formed in 1997 to fight for better working conditions for textile workers. The group Pagán formed at MU in January is one of many on college campuses nationwide.
The only college apparel brand the network supports is Alta Gracia because the company has a system for making sure labor rights are respected. USAS believes all brands should adhere to a similar system of supervision.
Alta Gracia has gained contracts with more than 400 universities since its start in 2010. Pagán and her group want MU to be next in line. Alta Gracia guarantees anti-sweatshop conditions, a living wage and the right to form a union. It is also the only brand of clothing that the Worker Rights Consortium endorses, a designation that is printed on its price tags. The consortium, along with the Collegiate Licensing Company and the Fair Labor Association, helps to implement codes of conduct for collegiate apparel manufacturers.
The obstacles that lie between the students and a better industry form a long road, though, and students such as Pagán know that Alta Gracia is a first step. Pressuring the universities to have a higher level of concern about manufacturing conditions is the students’ principal objective.
How it began
Pagán became devoted to Alta Gracia’s business model last winter break when she visited its factory alongside 30 other students on a trade justice delegation. During her 10-day stay, she learned from Alta Gracia workers the history behind the brand.
A tropical city of a little more than 97,000 people, Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic, is home to the Alta Gracia factory. Translated as “high grace,” the brand was founded as an initiative by a company called Knights Apparel and opened for business in February 2010 after moving into a newly renovated BJ&B building. BJ&B, a factory in the Dominican Republic that produced caps for Nike and Reebok for college bookstores, shut down in 2007 after a long fight against management that intertwined nationwide USAS campaigns and union demands. Today, approximately half the Alta Gracia workers formerly worked at BJ&B.
Yenny Perez, 35, a former BJ&B employee and current Alta Gracia worker, is a slender woman who emanates dignity with her straight back and crossed legs. Her lips press together into a thin line, and her eyes turn down as she brings back the memories of BJ&B, where she began working at 14 years old.
In the mid 1990s, the hum of hundreds of sewing machines filled the buildings at the BJ&B garment factory. A total of about 3,000 workers stood in rows and bent over their worktables in the factory’s peak years of business. Those who did have seating were on wooden benches without any back support, Yenny says. The majority of the employees were women, some pregnant, some younger than the legal working age.
“And you can imagine that it was a workplace where people were working out of necessity for employment with the feeling of the boss behind you hurrying you along,” she says.
In 2002, students affiliated with USAS began campaigns in support of the BJ&B workers and began using their leverage with university contracts to pressure change.
With the combined efforts of the students and workers, a union at BJ&B was recognized. But it was a short-lived success. By 2005, as the brands that contracted with BJ&B began pulling orders in search of cheaper, nonunionized labor, approximately 800 workers were laid off from a number that had already shrunk to about 1,200 workers.
Two years later, the factory shut its doors for good without prior notification to its workers and left many in the community unemployed.
In 2010, Knights Apparel, under the direction of CEO Joe Bozich and with advice from the Worker Rights Consortium, launched Alta Gracia in an effort to rehire some of the 1,200 left without a job.
“The moment that you see the sign that says ‘Alta Gracia,’ that’s where the difference begins,” Perez says.
The workers at Alta Gracia receive health insurance that covers their children until they are 18 years old. They are given maternity leave and are paid $2.95 per hour, an increase from the country’s minimum wage of 83 cents, which is what workers received at BJ&B.
By selling T-shirts for $8 wholesale, the company has agreed to make a lower profit to maintain the higher wages and benefits for its workers while also remaining competitive in the garment industry.
A student campaign for local change
Last fall the MU Bookstore spent $242,150 for adult T-shirts in combined purchases from eight to 10 different vendors. The students who met with Pollard in February hoped to persuade her to add Alta Gracia to the list of vendors for fall 2012. At the first meeting they asked that the bookstore carry $300,000 worth of Alta Gracia merchandise. The large order would allow Alta Gracia to hire more of the displaced BJ&B workers.
At the meeting, Pollard explained that $300,000 was a huge amount to spend with a vendor the bookstore had never done business with. And she said she believed customers wanted a variety of brands at the bookstore. It is the bookstore’s fiscal responsibility, she said, to make sure the brand sells before ordering a large quantity.
The students argued the bookstore has a legal and moral responsibility to be concerned about the conditions in which its products are manufactured, and Alta Gracia is the only factory that guarantees to meet the Worker Rights Consortium’s labor standards for collegiate apparel. To uphold those standards, the consortium visits with factory management, union leaders and workers every two weeks, inspects the physical conditions of the facility and reviews records to ensure compliance.
Linda Gilbert, MU’s trademark administrator, wrote in an email that the school does not approve companies for the bookstore unless they have agreed to the university’s labor code and have a membership with the Fair Labor Association. Although MU is affiliated with the consortium, she said, MU does not normally check with them to make sure manufacturers are producing in acceptable conditions.
For the students, this isn’t enough. Unlike the Fair Labor Association, the consortium is independent from company representatives in both its funding and its governing structure. This independence allows the consortium a credibility that the members of USAS value. Groups such as the one Pagán formed have made it their role to hold universities accountable for their signed conduct agreements.
Three weeks after their initial meeting, the students and Pollard, accompanied by Michelle Froese, public relations manager at the bookstore, met again in the conference room. The students brought a list of past investigations of manufacturers who made products for brands sold in the MU Bookstore.
Down the list, they read off the violations in factories producing for Nike, Gildan, Russell, Champion, Under Armour and other brands.
“Jansport employees at Dae Joo Corporation had to work up to 17 hours a day,” Cara Trautman said regarding a 2004 investigation. “The staff was rarely given protective masks, gloves or earplugs, and they labored in heat up to 35 degrees Celsius (95°F).”
Ryan Lozano followed with a 2011 incident in which manufacturers for Russell laid off all the workers. Russell agreed to pay severance but didn’t follow through until the Worker Rights Consortium spoke to all of Russell’s buyers and got them to voice their opinions.
After the students finished their presentation, Pollard cut in to say the bookstore decided to buy up to $50,000 of Alta Gracia merchandise for fall 2012. Although it’s not the amount the students asked for, she says the hope is to create a sustainable relationship with the company. A smaller amount, she says, will give them room to reorder more as the brand sells.
“It’s disappointing that it’s not more urgent to her and to just take this business standpoint and not think about the families and the people and the lives that this is affecting,” Pagán says. “But that’s what we’re here for, to give them a voice since they’re not here.”
Pollard’s news was met with mixed emotions. “I think all of us would agree we want it to be a sustainable relationship,” Pollard says.
The students of USAS-MU and the bookstore administration have taken the first steps for change at MU. But as the balance between moral responsibilty and financial responsibility digs a deep hole into customers’ closets and drawers — not as far removed as the tag that says “Made in Dominican Republic” suggests — the students know they will be asking for more.