A Look Back, A Look Forward, For The DSP

Penn State Student Labor Action Project and United Students Against Sweatshops won some impressive victories last year and over the summer. Recently, we defeated the most serious attempt yet by President Spanier to intimidate and silence students.

On April 15, with more than 200 students, faculty, and community members outside, 31 students were arrested for sitting in at Old Main. Our position during the nonviolent demonstration was simple: we are not leaving until Mr. Spanier does the right thing and signs on to the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP) to protect workers’ rights. According to the Collegian, Mr. Spanier was in his office all day. He did not engage us at all, refused to adopt the DSP, and had all 31 participants arrested.

But we were not deterred. The next day, we were kicked off the Old Main steps for flyering at an open house.

After stomping on our first amendment rights, Mr. Spanier announced that the administration was pressing charges against the “Penn State 31.” He chose to charge the students with Defiant Criminal Trespass, a misdemeanor of the third degree punishable by up to a year in jail, fines of $2,500, or both. Together, we faced a cumulative total of 31 years in jail and $77,500 in fines.

Again, we refused to be intimidated. On May 1, we marched more than 100 people into Old Main to demand adoption of the DSP, to let Mr. Spanier know that his tactics for silencing students would not work, and to make sure he understood that we weren’t going to disappear. Beneath the Abe Lincoln, economic justice fresco, we were met by a line of police.

We had intended to deliver a letter of endorsement for the DSP to Mr. Spanier for his signature, but the police and Mr. Spanier’s white-collared cronies behind them wouldn’t let us mount the stairs. We rallied in the Old Main lobby for more than an hour, listened to impromptu speeches by community and faculty members, chanted, marched, sang.

Students have been demanding Penn State’s adoption of the DSP for nearly a decade. By providing living wages and the right to form unions to the workers who make our clothing, the DSP would guarantee that Penn State apparel is sweatshop free. Best of all, the DSP would not close factories or take people’s jobs, nor would it significantly raise the cost of Penn State clothing. The largest price increase would be for hoodies and it would be no more than 25 cents. For these reasons, forty-five universities have already signed on, including Ivy League, Big Ten, and other state schools.

For two and a half years, Spanier has refused to even meet with SLAP/USAS to discuss the program. To gain his and the Penn State community’s attention, we’ve organized countless actions. However, the formal, obedient actions, which take up most of our time–candle light vigils; press conferences; letters, phone calls, and emails to administrators, faculty, and community members; symposiums and teach-ins; public speaking events; and so on–tend to be ignored by the media and popular discourse.

We are forced, therefore, by Mr. Spanier’s obstinate refusal to engage us, to organize actions that he, the media, and everyone else will not be able to ignore. Spring semester alone, in addition to the sit-in and May 1st rally, we dumped a bucket of Valentines on the floor of Spanier’s suit; donned garbage bags inside the HUB; and played wiffle ball inside Old Main.

But then the summer hit, and summer is the opportune moment for the administration to resolve any of its unpopular business. The Daily Collegian stops publishing for months, most of the students and faculty move away, many of the most experienced and active students graduate. And Spanier banks on the summer to create an institutional amnesia within which all of the past years’ actions, and therefore progress, are lost. In the case of SLAP/USAS and the Penn State 31, the administration was counting on the summer as the perfect time to persecute the students without anyone watching: most of the media and our network of support were absent.

Our summer victory over Mr. Spanier’s bullying was not necessarily due to the fact that we organized what resources we had and strategized a defense (although we did). More than anything, our victory was due to the fact that Mr. Spanier’s attempt failed so miserably.

Spanier assumed that the police who arrested us, the prosecutor who pressed the charges, and the judge who determined our punishment would be as unreasonably cruel as he is. That is not how it panned out.

The arresting officer referred to the charges as “ridiculous”; the District Attorney first lessened the charges to summary offenses and then offered to drop all the charges and erase our criminal histories, mug shots, and fingerprints from the database in exchange for a few hours community service; the judge waived all court costs and fees. In short, everyone recognized Spanier for the power-hungry ignoramus he is, and commended us for the upstanding civility we demonstrated.

In addition to consistently trumping Spanier’s attempts to terrorize students into passivity, this last year SLAP/USAS organized the largest DSP sit-in ever and began to build the local anti-sweatshop campaign into a true anti-sweatshop movement.

The DSP campaign, now two and a half years running, is currently the focus of the international anti-sweatshop movement. To win adoption of the program, students all across the nation have organized large actions like hunger strikes and sit-ins. The sit-in at Penn State was the largest single DSP event ever organized on a college campus.

Last year, our activism brought the anti-sweatshop movement to the forefront of Penn State politics and popular discourse. In so doing, we forced University Park into the international spotlight. The struggle for sweatshop-free apparel at Penn State is now the heart of the anti-sweatshop movement across the country.

But the fact remains: Mr. Spanier isn’t going to act unless we make him. If we are to aid the struggle for international economic and social justice, then we cannot afford to eke by as simply a student campaign. Rather, we must unite as students, workers, faculty, community members, politicians, churches, even administrators, and demand an end to oppression. Spanier has not done the right thing; he has not adopted the DSP. But he will.

The fact that Mr. Spanier has not yet signed on to the DSP is only a failure if one believes that all of the agitation and civil disobedience we organized last year were focused exclusively and single-mindedly on winning adoption of the program.

We have failed only if one believes that we did not intend or succeed in building networks of support, or in training organizers and students to think critically and to be actively and politically engaged in the future, or in building a movement which has the power to force the people standing in the way of social justice to do the right thing. But we have built the networks.

We have trained the organizers. The movement is building. Last year, we didn’t see adoption of the DSP, but we set the groundwork. In short, we were just gearing up for the school year.

Aaron Troisi
Member, Penn State SLAP/USAS