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The Sentinel

An Eye on the Penn State Administration


Student Against Sweatshops Respond to Spanier’s Letter

Editor’s Note: The following article was written by the Penn State United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and Student Labor Action Project (SLAP). Safeguard Old State has published this letter to act as an open forum to spur needed public discourse on this subject, though we take no official stance on the issue of so-called sweatshop labor.

Dear President Spanier,

Thank you for your letter. It brings much-needed attention to a significant problem: the fact that Penn State apparel is produced in sweatshops. Unfortunately, your letter provides no indication that you are willing to adequately address the problem. Instead, you offer faulty arguments and misleading information to justify continued inaction.

Nine years ago, students first approached you with concerns regarding Penn State’s reliance on sweatshop labor. Yet workers producing Penn State apparel continue to endure abusive treatment, excessive hours, dangerous working conditions, and wages inadequate to meet basic needs.

Rather than taking action, your administration has merely “followed” allegations of abuse and continues to “monitor” the sweatshop issue. Such an approach relegates the university to the position of bystander.

Your persistent refusal to meet with Penn State United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) is an obstacle to progress. A meeting would allow us to clear up a number of your misconceptions.

You claim the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP) may violate anti-trust laws. However, forty universities have already signed on to support the DSP, including three Big Ten schools and universities with prominent legal programs, such as Columbia, Georgetown, Duke, and Cornell.

Legal scholars at Penn State’s own Dickinson School of Law affirm that the DSP would not violate anti-trust laws. In addition, former U.S. Assistant Attorney General Donald Baker reviewed the program in 2006 and found that the DSP does not conflict with any national laws.

Furthermore, you misunderstand and misrepresent the interaction between the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and the U.S. Department of Justice. Your statement that the Department of Justice refused to provide the DSP with a favorable Business Review Letter is false.

The Department of Justice made no decision concerning the DSP; the WRC willingly withdrew its Business Review Letter when it became apparent that the program would be judged according to politics, not its legal merits.

The WRC’s decision to withdraw the request should not interfere with Penn State’s adoption of the DSP. The program has not been “put on hold,” as you assert. In fact, two universities have signed on to support the DSP in the short time following the WRC’s decision.

As Mr. Baker wrote in a 2006 memorandum to Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, “I also want to stress…that there is no legal impediment to a University Licensor agreeing in principle to the DSP program, and participating in implementation planning, while awaiting the outcome of the DOJ process.”

Your insistence that the program may violate anti-trust laws by interfering with the free market is used simply to divert attention away from your inaction. If your administration were truly concerned with supporting competition within the free market, then you would rescind Pepsi-Cola’s exclusive contract with Penn State, which grants the company a monopoly on the beverage market at Penn State campuses.

If your administration truly cared about the workers suffering to produce Penn State apparel, then it would support the spirit of the DSP, which is to ensure workers’ rights. Instead of merely observing the campaign, Penn State would join the DSP working group and help other universities to finalize the program.

We believe that Penn State’s voice should be heard. Only universities that have publicly stated their support for the program have a vote in matters pertaining to the DSP. Your refusal to adopt the program disenfranchises Penn State.

The DSP does not violate anti-trust laws, nor does adoption of the program entail legal ramifications. The program simply ensures that workers who produce collegiate apparel are paid a living wage and afforded the right to form unions. The DSP also promotes job security by empowering universities to provide a constant flow of business to factories that respect the rights of workers.
In the past, you have called the concept of a living wage “elusive.” You are clearly not aware of the research being conducted at Penn State, as there are a number of researchers on campus fully capable of calculating living wages.

You also question “whether U.S. institutions should be imposing their values and practices on those of another nation or people.” But was divestment to end apartheid in South Africa—a campaign Penn State student activists won in 1987—simply an imposition of U.S. values on a foreign nation? Or was it a vital step in the international struggle for human rights? The DSP is another such step.

In 1996, you referred to the divestment campaign as an example of “moral leadership.” Where is the “moral leadership” on the issue of sweatshop-produced collegiate apparel? And where was the “moral leadership” when it became apparent that Penn State licensee New Era Cap was running a sweatshop in Mobile, Alabama?

Workers at the facility were suffering poverty wages, racial discrimination, and sexual harassment. Several were fired for attempting to form a union.

In January, the Teamsters union, which represented the workers during negotiations, paid for Penn State USAS President Doug Baldwin to travel to Mobile in order to meet with workers and document reports of abuse firsthand.

While “Penn State officials actively followed the allegations at New Era and communicated regularly with the company,” we communicated regularly with the workers. At the workers’ request, we demanded that your administration suspend, or threaten to suspend, Penn State’s contract with New Era, unless the company ceased abusive practices.

You wrote, “USAS accused the manufacturing facility of gender and racial discrimination and demanded that colleges and universities withdraw their support.” In fact, the workers themselves accused New Era of discriminatory practices and asked USAS to help bring attention to the problem and convince universities to put pressure on the company. Our demand to your administration was a direct extension of the workers’ own demand.

Fortunately, New Era caved to the workers’ demands and accepted new contracts, which provided for increased wages and the formation of a union. Workers previously fired for forming a union were rehired.

But your administration played no role in the victory. Other universities actively responded to the workers’ appeal: The University of Wisconsin-Madison cut its contract with New Era; Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Washington, Georgetown, Purdue, and others threatened to do the same if sweatshop conditions persisted.

While your administration “followed the allegations,” other universities were taking the lead. While your administration was “communicating,” other universities were issuing ultimatums to New Era.

You justified your administration’s inaction by quoting the Teamsters out of context. Citing a February 14 letter from Teamsters President James Hoffa, you wrote that the union “asked the United Students Against Sweatshops to cease all activities that might damage New Era’s business,” and “requested that ‘any college or university that has suspended its license with New Era or that is considering doing so … immediately reinstate (the) license and take no further action’ against the company.”

But those requests were made only after the workers had won their campaign. Before the win, the Teamsters joined workers in demanding that universities suspend their contracts with New Era.

You wrote, “The Teamsters president also said that union members believe New Era’s practices ‘comply with the codes of conduct of both the Fair Labor Association and the WRC.’” Again, this statement was not made until after the workers had won new contracts and conditions within the factory were improved.

Your use of this information is patently misleading. We are disappointed that the president of Penn State would willingly disseminate misinformation to the public.

We are also disappointed by your administration’s response to concerned members of the Penn State community. Two weeks ago, students delivered to your office more than 140 signed letters from students, faculty, and community members requesting that Penn State cut its contract with New Era, unless the company improved conditions at the Mobile facility.

Among these were signatures from State College Borough Councilman Peter Morris and the president of Teamsters Local 8, a union that represents approximately 2,300 workers at Penn State. Your administration not only threw the letters away without reading them, but publicly referred to them as “garbage.”

Your refusal to meet with USAS and SLAP further demonstrates your blatant disregard for the voices of many in the Penn State community. You have refused to meet with us for two and a half years, despite our frequent attempts to approach your administration using the “customary channels.”

We have sent you messages by mail and e-mail; delivered letters, petitions, and endorsements to your administration; and continue, as you acknowledge, to regularly visit your office. The president of a “student-friendly” university would not consistently rebuff requests to meet with concerned students.

The purpose of higher education is to promote the free exchange of ideas and to pursue truth in good faith. In your letter, you make explicit your opposition to open discourse. And your use of misinformation suggests that you are not operating in good faith.

Your letter does little but justify inaction. It celebrates the passive role you have forced Penn State to assume in the struggle for human rights.

We believe that Penn State must become a leader in this campaign. The New Era facility in Alabama was not a unique case; the workers who produce Penn State apparel suffer in sweatshops all over the world. The only way for Penn State to meaningfully address the problem is to adopt the DSP.

By opposing open dialogue and providing misleading information, you tarnish Penn State’s reputation. By offering faulty arguments and refusing to take an active stance against sweatshops, you condemn Penn State to silence and workers to continued exploitation and abuse.

For the sake of the women and children who make Penn State apparel; for those who endure starvation wages, dangerous working conditions, long hours, and forced overtime; for those who are threatened, beaten, kidnapped, and murdered for asserting their basic rights, it is imperative that you adopt the DSP.

Sincerely,
Penn State United Students Against Sweatshops and Student Labor Action Project

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Note: The Safeguard Old State Executive Staff does not moderate the comments posted by the public to blog entries. The comments of Safeguard Old State readers do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Safeguard Old State.

Comments

THIS ROCKS. Well-written, great response.

To be clear, the views expressed in this letter do not express the viewpoints of Safeguard Old State or its directors. SOS has published this letter as part of a continuing effort to be an open forum for civic-minded students and alums, but does not endorse the views of the “United Students Against Sweatshops and Student Labor Action Project”.

Wow, this was an amazing letter. Not only did you guys debunk all of Spanier’s faulty rhetoric, but you did so in a logical, well-written way. This letter proves that USAS is not just a band of hooligans, as Spanier would like Penn State students and faculty to believe.

This letter is great, a very well-written response. But it doesn’t leave room for Spanier to respond – even if he is swayed by your information, you make it more difficult for him to take positive action by condemning him and accusing him so completely. You can write an equally forceful letter that highlights his failures while still using language that allows him to make action a positive move for his presidency, instead of the embarassment that it would be if it were nothing more than him caving in to an angry student group. Whether he deserves your condemnations or not, a savvier use of language would probably further USAS’s goals more effectively.

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