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Campus Activism Surging

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  • Dan Clore
    Published Tuesday, May 30, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News Campus activism surging BY PATRICK MAY Mercury News EUGENE, Ore. -- It was the Shootout at the
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      Published Tuesday, May 30, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

      Campus activism surging

      BY PATRICK MAY
      Mercury News

      EUGENE, Ore. -- It was the Shootout at the Swoosh Corral.

      On one side, Phil Knight, big-moneyed alum of the University
      of Oregon and CEO of Nike, symbol for many of sweatshop labor
      and the company contracted to make the school's apparel.

      On the other, activists on the anti-globalization warpath,
      demanding the university force its multinational partners like
      Nike to clean up their acts.

      In the middle, university president and longtime Knight buddy
      Dave Frohnmayer.

      When the smoke cleared last month at what critics dubbed Nike
      University, Knight had taken back a $30 million donation to
      the University of Oregon. Frohnmayer was nursing a gaping
      public relations wound. And the students were drunk with
      victory.

      Steeped in a legacy of protest stretching back to the Vietnam
      War, Eugene stands at the vanguard of a burgeoning student
      movement. Emboldened by success at shutting down talks of the
      World Trade Organization in Seattle, and ready to do battle
      this summer at the Democratic National Convention in Los
      Angeles, activists from the Bay Area to Boston are riding a
      wave of anti-corporate zeal not seen on campuses since the
      1960s.

      ``Students are frustrated with conventional politics they feel
      have been captured by big-money interests,'' says Michael
      Dreiling, an assistant professor of sociology at the University
      of Oregon. ``So some feel protest is the only way to effect
      change.''

      Anti-sweatshop activists across the nation are pressuring
      college administrators to join the Worker Rights Consortium, a
      fledgling watchdog group founded by students to monitor overseas
      factories where collegiate apparel is made.

      Manufacturers like Nike -- which enjoys an all-sports, head-to-toe
      contract with the University of Oregon and 15 other schools --
      would rather their college partners join the industry-sponsored
      Fair Labor Association. The university's decision to go with the
      WRC not only outraged Knight and hit the University of Oregon in
      the pocketbook, it also pumped up the student insurgency across
      the land.

      ``The university historically has been the birthplace of social
      progress,'' says student leader Laura Close, a 19-year-old
      sophomore calling for an independent audit of factories where
      Nike and others put their logos on sweatshirts and track uniforms.
      ``With this Nike thing, we've shown we can raise our voices and
      bring about change in the global economy.''

      `Center of anarchism'

      Rebellion in Eugene is as time-honored as cheering on the Ducks at
      Autzen Stadium. Nude-ins, tofu pâté and Napster music
      downloading
      are big here. The latest bit of street theater offers
      ``Revolutionary Gardens tours'' and encourages renters to turn
      landlords' front lawns into vegetable patches.

      ``We're getting known as the center of anarchism,'' says Tom Hager,
      a university spokesman. ``Eugene activists made a lot of noise in
      Seattle at the WTO meeting and loved the attention they got.''

      But while outrage over sweatshop labor practices by collegiate
      apparel companies has been the gateway issue for most college
      students, signs of a broader movement are surfacing. Students are
      organizing over items as diverse as tuition increases,
      environmental degradation and the use of prison labor by
      university vendors. At Stanford last week, students rallied to
      improve wages for school janitors.

      In their eyes, the university has become a window onto a very
      troubled world.

      ``The anti-sweatshop movement is an easy handle for students to
      grab hold of,'' says Sarah Jacobson, a soft-spoken geology major
      at the University of Oregon who was among those arrested during
      a sit-in outside Frohnmayer's office. ``But in the past year,
      sweatshops have let us see the bigger global problems, from
      sexual harassment in the workplace to the growing disparity
      between rich and poor.

      ``This movement goes way beyond logos.''

      The pressure on universities over sweatshop labor harkens back
      to another movement -- the 1980s campus campaign to force
      colleges to divest themselves of stocks in companies that were
      doing business in South Africa.

      The anti-sweatshop pot was first put to boil back in the
      mid-1990s, when authorities conducted high-profile raids on
      American sweatshops. Reports of human-rights abuses overseas
      began to stream in on the nightly news. Talk-show host Kathie
      Lee Gifford landed in the spotlight after revelations that some
      of her brand-name clothes had been sewn in sweatshops. But the
      brunt of criticism fell to Nike, which found itself under fire
      for labor practices in its factories in Southeast Asia.

      Nike has fought back ever since. It raised wages at plants in
      Vietnam and Indonesia. It boasted how its factories' air and
      water standards exceeded those of their host countries. It
      launched micro-loan and educational programs for workers. Says
      spokesman Vada Manager: ``We have nothing to hide.''

      Yet Nike can't seem to satisfy critics. On college campuses,
      where licensing of everything from T-shirts to ashtrays is a
      $2.5 billion-a-year business, Nike became a fat target for
      suburban rebels raised on a logo-obsessed culture.

      In 1998, the company known for its swoosh logo joined other
      garment makers, the White House, union groups and human-rights
      activists to create the Fair Labor Association, an ostensibly
      autonomous group that would monitor working conditions in
      plants here and abroad. But union members bolted and, with the
      United Students Against Sweatshops, formed a competing group,
      the Worker Rights Consortium. Both are still in formative
      stages.

      Clear choice

      But to students, the choice between a business-backed or a
      labor-supported watchdog was a no-brainer. ``It never made
      sense to me,'' says Mitra Anoushiravani, vice president of the
      University of Oregon student body, ``to have a fox monitoring
      a chicken coop.''

      On April 12, after deliberation and consultation with students,
      faculty and staff, Frohnmayer decided the university would join
      the WRC, although Nike's contract with the school continues
      uninterrupted until 2003. Knight, who was not consulted
      beforehand, has not spoken publicly about his decision to pull
      his donation. But the act itself speaks volumes.

      Says Jacobson: ``You can't separate Knight from Nike. This was a
      move to crush the WRC. But his decision helped clarify for us how
      far corporations are willing to go to protect profits.''

      Nike, of course, sees things differently. ``We consider the WRC
      to be `gotcha' monitoring,'' says company spokesman Scott Reames.
      ``Instead of working with us on these problems, they'll come in
      after the fact to criticize. We feel that to bring real change,
      industry has to be involved.''

      Lurking in the background, Nike says, is big labor. The WRC board
      includes Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the
      AFL-CIO. With such a link to organized labor, Reames says, ``we
      question how independent the WRC's methods of monitoring can be.
      (Organized labor) wants `Made in the USA' and they don't like the
      fact that these jobs are going overseas.''

      No one disputes the fact labor has become integral to the
      demonstrations on campus and at the WTO meeting, where students
      and steelworkers protested side by side. Cornell University
      labor historian Alex Blair says these budding alliances between
      middle-class college kids and blue-collar workers are
      unprecedented. He attributes them largely to labor reaching out
      to students, beginning in 1996 when AFL-CIO President John
      Sweeney launched the ``Union Summer'' program.

      ``Just like with the voter-rights campaign in the '60s,'' says
      Blair, ``students would work six weeks on union campaigns, then
      go back to campus and talk about what they'd learned. It got
      kids thinking about the labor movement as a place to talk about
      politics.

      ``And while there are only a few thousand kids who've done it
      so far,'' he says, ``when you're at the birth of a new student
      movement that gets to be a substantial bulwark.''

      Nike steppingstone

      Solidarity with other groups is drawing converts to the new
      activist gospel. Randy Newnham, a University of Oregon senior
      studying linguistics and anthropology, got involved last year
      while attending the University of Kentucky.

      '`There's a groundswell of awareness from coast to coast around
      the anti-sweatshop campaign,'' he says. ``Once you start looking
      at global issues, you see how everything is tied to corporate
      power and how that power can undermine democracies everywhere.''

      Status quo, he says, is something to be questioned, not accepted
      blindly. ``You're told, `This is how things are, get used to it.'
      But I've learned to take the reins and make things happen. Like
      we did here with Nike. You make it an issue, and then you just
      start pushing.''

      With each teach-in or burst of civil disobedience, new recruits
      answer the call, even in Silicon Valley, considered by many in
      the anti-corporate crowd to be the belly of the beast. Dale
      Weaver, a graduate student in history at San Jose State
      University, returned to college after a series of retail jobs
      and found the new spirit of protest to be intoxicating. He
      handles the western region for United Students Against
      Sweatshops; the 30 colleges he dealt with a year ago have
      now grown to 50.

      ``In this valley, where everyone is so damn busy making house
      payments, you don't have time to think about things like workers'
      rights on the other side of the world,'' says Weaver. ``But at
      school, you start to read more, hear other people's opinions,
      and critique the way things are.

      ``Pretty soon,'' he says, ``you start to raise your voice.''

      Contact Patrick May at pmay@... or (408) 920-5689.
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