Campus Activism Surging
- Published Tuesday, May 30, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News
Campus activism surging
BY PATRICK MAY
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
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
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
``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
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 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
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
``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
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
``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.''
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
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.