Duke University Alumni Magazine


Past imperfect: Garment workers slip-stitching the center of silk ties in a sweatshop, working conditions that Duke and student organizers want to relegate to history
Photo: Corbis-Bettmann

If you thought the rise of labor unions had eliminated the inhumane excesses of sweatshops, you were wrong. One student group is ensuring that such exploitation will never be a part of Duke-related merchandise.

weatshops have been in and out of the news since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In early nineteenth-century England and during the Civil War in the United States, the "sweating system" meant producing piecework under grinding conditions of long hours, low wages, and in unsanitary facilities, with workers recruited from among children, the desperate, the poor, and the aged. Sweatshops became a particular feature of the garment industry, where low capitalization needs and decentralization of production combined with centralization of profits to make them attractive to unscrupulous middlemen.

For many middle-class Americans, sweatshops may have had a whiff of the exotic or historical until recently. But if we thought the rise of labor unions had eliminated such inhumane, excessive exploitation even in our own country, we were wrong.

The news stories are chilling. In August 1995, a Department of Labor raid in El Monte, California, found seventy-two Thai women working in subhuman conditions for as little as seventy cents an hour. That same year, a newspaper revealed that young Honduran child laborers were assembling clothing --sometimes on forced overtime--for a line of Kathie Lee clothing sold at Wal-Mart. Then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran an exposŽ on Liz Claiborne supplier factories in Honduras and El Salvador, where adolescent girls were said to be working oppressive hours, sometimes from daybreak until late into the night, and were reportedly subject to pregnancy tests so the employer could avoid paying maternal-leave benefits.

In the States, government raids continued in New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Names that became soiled by association included Talbot's, JCPenney, and Macy's East. In May 1996, another supplier for Wal-Mart's "Kathie Lee" label, this time in New York City, was found to owe its workers more than $47,000 in back wages. The industry seemed to be imploding.

Robert Reich, secretary of labor during that turbulent period, launched a "No Sweat" campaign to educate, inform, and rally the public. Among other initiatives, Reich's office backed the formation of a White House-sponsored Apparel Industry Partnership, which he hoped would bring together interested parties on all sides of the sweatshop issue to develop a code of conduct for U.S. manufacturers and a means of monitoring compliance with that code. But while few manufacturers or distributors were overtly pro-sweatshop, many were anti-regulation. The AIP struggled with behind-the-scenes grudge matches and found difficulty in persuading members of the industry to endorse its efforts.

The Department of Labor, of course, focuses on goods manufactured in the U.S., not those sold in the U.S. But the problem produced by a global economy has seemed too big for any one country, much less any one organization, to tackle.

For Jim Wilkerson, Duke's director of trademark licensing and stores operations, it suddenly became personal when he was at home channel-surfing in the summer of 1997. An image of a sweatshop appeared--women and children laboring over sewing machines in a filthy, airless room. "Most trademark owners," intoned the announcer, "don't realize the conditions in which products bearing their marks are being manufactured."

Wilkerson paused. He runs the seventh- biggest independent university store in the country, and he didn't know where his T-shirts came from.

Of course, he knew a lot about the Collegiate Licensing Company, the university's domestic licensing agent, with which he had negotiated dozens of contracts during his sixteen years at Duke and which represented some 160 other universities. He knew all the brand names, knew the vendors from Nike and Cotton Exchange and the 700 other university licensees that applied those Duke logos. He knew how to recognize quality, and he knew what students liked. But the collegiate apparel industry is a $1.6-billion business nationwide, just a fraction of the world's $200-billion retail clothing market, and Duke's $20-million market portion paled in comparison to the big players. Naturally, vendors were going to contract and sub-contract production, both domestically and overseas. Wasn't someone already looking out for this problem? Wilkerson decided he'd better ask a few questions.

Photo: Chris Hildreth

A year later, Wilkerson has logged countless miles and met with everyone from the U.S. secretary of labor to the European Union's commissioner for employment and social affairs; he has attended meetings from Brussels to Washington to San Antonio, and spent weekends on the phone. He's watched manufacturers and human-rights activists jaw at each other across a table, and he's helped bring them together again when everybody thought the jig was up.

At his desk in the basement of Union West, he leans forward conspiratorially. "I've never been so consumed by something in my life," he confides.

ico Almeida '99 never subscribed to the genteel illusion that sweatshops were primarily a nineteenth-century phenomenon: His great-aunt had worked in a Cuban sweatshop, and he knew sweatshops still existed. In the summer of 1997, the public policy major had interned with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) in New York City, following in the footsteps of Glenn Gutterman '98, who had spent the previous summer at the Garment Workers Justice Center, also part of UNITE. The UNITE interns vividly remember visiting sweatshops in New York's garment district. "Getting to talk to the workers was a powerful connection," Gutterman explains. "And right while I was there, the Kathie Lee thing broke."

On the second day of classes last fall, Almeida and Gutterman, along with Ben Au '99 and Carolyn Fanelli '98, founded Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) at Duke. Their mission included educating, organizing, and influencing fellow students and the wider university community, and pushing for the implementation of an anti-sweatshop code. They began with presentations to sympathetic student groups and classes, set up a table and video on the Bryan Center walkway, handed out leaflets, and launched a massive electronic-mail campaign directed to President Nannerl O. Keohane asking the university to take action against sweatshops. Having been briefed on Wilkerson's ongoing work, she arranged a meeting for SAS with Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, who stunned the students by immediately inviting them to participate in drafting a new code of conduct for licensees.

"In the very beginning," says Fanelli, a public policy major who wrote her senior thesis on her SAS experience, "we never anticipated that the administration would be receptive to what we had to say. We went to Tallman Trask and were prepared to have him slam us, to have him push us aside. When he said that not only was he receptive but that Duke was actively thinking about this--well, after that, there was always a sense of possibility and of what we could do. We said, let's ask for as much as we can, let's push this as far as it can go."

The student body did not, however, speak with a single voice, and SAS had plenty of work to do. In the wake of the National Day of Conscience to End Sweatshops and Child Labor on October 21, an anonymous Chronicle editorial pointed out the futility of a single university, however well-intentioned, trying to reform an entire industry. Fanelli countered in a letter that such a defeatist attitude sold short the ability of a committed few to set an example of corporate accountability that could inspire other schools and even move the industry forward.

Wilkerson and Almeida began weekly meetings, often disagreeing about tactics or wording but quickly learning to respect each other's determination and deep thinking about the issues. A month later, after a conference held at Duke called "Global Production, Regional Responses, and Local Jobs: On Challenges and Opportunities in the North American Apparel Industry," The Chronicle quoted Almeida as saying, "SAS and administrators agree upon what should be in the policy. Now our biggest problem is figuring out who will enforce it."

Actually, the policy was still very much a work in progress. As Almeida later admitted, "Sometimes a comma here, or an 'and' instead of an 'or,' makes all the difference in the strength of the code." It was clear that a lot of discussion still lay ahead.

iscussions lurched forward again on November 17, when former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich visited the university and offered his encouragement and counsel on strategies for crafting the final code and putting it to work. "We talked about specific language," reports SAS member Gutterman. "How to word things, how to make sure the code had teeth."

But the parties, though hungry for consensus, remained uneasy. Would manufacturers agree to language requiring that they grant workers the right to collective bargaining? What should be the minimum age for workers, given different cultural norms around the world and the fact that families in developing countries often rely on children's wages to avoid starvation?

Everybody wanted Duke to be the first university in the country to issue a comprehensive, enforceable code without loopholes--but the complexities multiplied with every enlargement of detail. Were they tilting at windmills after all?

Meanwhile, during a trip to New York, a colleague handed Jonathan Rosenblum '81 an article about his alma mater summarizing Duke's efforts on the sweatshop issue and announcing its intention of promulgating a code. What struck Rosenblum was, first, the apparent resolve and cooperation between students and the administration; and, second, the fact that no indication was given as to where this new collegiate licensing code of conduct might be coming from, its models, and precedents. As a former journalist who had written a book on labor-management relations in the mining industry, a senior fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Havens Center for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change, and as a lawyer representing the International Labor Rights Fund--a tiny, committed group whose initiatives reach from Burma to Guatemala--Rosenblum had considerable experience with the sweatshop dilemma. Having participated in the founding of the Apparel Industry Partnership, he was helping Liz Claiborne's general counsel, in the wake of the earlier revelations, establish a preventive monitoring program in some of its Latin American supplier factories--"the first project of its kind in trying to build independent monitoring, without governmental involvement, in an environment of cooperation rather than conflict," he says.

Rosenblum started ticking off a mental list of the people he still knew at Duke, where he had been news editor for The Chronicle and a double major in political science and French. "What I learned at Duke was the importance of the right mix of seeing intimately how people live, while appreciating the force of history on their lives," he recalls.

"And I was interested in contributing to this whole dialogue. I had no overwhelming truths to tell, but I had experience with these issues, and I knew Duke was headed into its own uncharted territory. A couple of years

earlier, we'd been saying the same things, asking the same questions."

He dropped an e-mail message to a mentor, Carol Meyers, a professor in the religion department, offering to help. She passed it on to others, and eventually it ended up with Jim Wilkerson, who had been feeling beset with what he thought was biased information from industry groups on one side and activists on the other. With a $30-million business to run, he felt as if he were trying to hold the center when everyone else was at the fringe.

Enter Jon Rosenblum. The young lawyer instantly hit it off with the seasoned retailer. Rosenblum explains, "Jim and I reached early- on a sense of solidarity: Both of us felt really driven by this issue, willing to use whatever physical and material resources we had, to burn the midnight oil. We both cared."

He reflects a moment. "Frankly, I was surprised, because this was not the face of the old Duke. This was the new Duke I was dealing with, a socially-conscious stores director whose office was inside the old Dope Shop, where the cheap malted milks had been!"

Wilkerson soon invited Rosenblum to join the effort as a consultant and, by December, the process of hammering out the most difficult and sensitive parts of the code was in full swing. Though basing their work in part on earlier models, Wilkerson, Rosenblum, and Students Against Sweatshops pursued a higher standard than anyone had yet achieved, hoping it could be adopted by a critical mass of other American colleges and universities, thus making requirements clear to vendors and making it possible to use pooled resources for effective enforcement.

"Duke has led the way in providing a model for a university consortium to examine and adopt," Rosenblum says. "The university's code improved on that of the AIP in several respects, most notably around the labor standards to be applied in a given country and not just in a given company. That provision has stimulated thinking more widely. And indeed, I would expect a higher standard from a university." Especially his own.

From faculty to administration to student groups to vendors to human-rights organizations to the federal government to manufacturers, every constituency had an opinion, but the hard work of compromise proceeded. "I was an information-provider to both the students and the administration," says Rosenblum. "And I was increasingly trying to help Jim steer through the icebergs in these waters."

"He filled me with data," Wilkerson agrees, remembering the late fall as a blur of activity. "It's been amazing how, when things seemed a little low, help and support and encouragement came out of the blue. Jon's e-mail and subsequent involvement was one of those events. He's a very committed and principled person."

"I've worked on this almost every day, almost every night," Wilkerson continues without a trace of regret. "I had about five hours off over the whole four-day Thanksgiving weekend. But you know what? You don't get many opportunities to do a lot of people a lot of good. I know we can't change everything overnight, but if we can get the ball rollingÉ. I'm lucky--blessed, even--to have been part of this."

After gathering reactions from other universities, trade organizations, and the licensees themselves, Duke released its completed code last March. Almost immediately, Tico Almeida began getting ten to twelve phone calls and e-mail messages a day from students around the country seeking advice on how to make the process work at their schools. "A lot of our work during the spring semester," says Carolyn Fanelli, "was working with the media, doing interviews, responding to letters."

Wilkerson and Rosenblum, likewise beset with calls, were invited to speak at the National Association of College Stores convention and before the Association of Collegiate Licensing Administrators. There were articles and columns about Duke in The New York Times, USA Today, the Las Vegas Sun, and on the Associated Press wire. Wilkerson was invited to join the Apparel Industry Partnership as its first university representative. At the opening of the Smithsonian's controversial exhibit on American sweatshops, Wilkerson felt someone touch his shoulder and turned to find himself face to face with Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, who had succeeded Reich in May 1997. "We're so proud of the work you're doing down in Durham, Jim," she said. "Please thank them all." And he did.

"When people from different backgrounds come together, swimming in the same direction, you have to have gratitude," says Glenn Gutterman, whose SAS efforts were recognized at a student leaders breakfast on graduation weekend. "Something spectacular took place at Duke. Reflecting on it now, looking at how it's playing along at other universities, it shocks me that it happened so quickly. Brown has accepted a code; Cornell hasn't gotten that far yet, though they've announced that they're going to adopt a code. This would not have happened, this ripple effect and this energy that has shot out to campuses all along, without Duke; and Duke would not have happened without the students. We launched the code, and that ignited activism all across the country. You think you're working for change in just one little niche, but the ramifications are global."

"It was a wonderful way to end my career at Duke," puts in SAS stalwart Fanelli. "To see something real and concrete come out of your work, and to see it spread across the country, is really a great feeling."

Tico Almeida had been SAS's primary contact with the administration. "He and I have met a lot," says Wilkerson, "and argued a lot and worked together a lot in our respective realms to move the process forward. I like Tico a great deal."

For his part, notes Almeida, "Jim Wilkerson has shown exceptional leadership on this issue. He's done an incredible amount of research and learning about something he previously knew nothing about. Without him, we never could have got to this point. Our opinions were taken seriously. Still, I'm hopeful that students will be included in the monitoring, without which the best code in the world won't make a bit of difference."

"The work is not over," according to Gutterman. "It's a code that I hope will be adopted by other universities and used as a model. The university has garnered a lot of positive attention for taking the lead on this, and deservedly so. We look good--but it's not about looking good. Now we have to follow through."

Photo: Chris Hildreth

Fanelli agrees. "Passing the code was an end, in a way, but also the beginning of a whole new process." The task at hand "is to live up to the possibility the code presents by pushing Duke to once again take the lead, this time in the code's implementation and enforcement."

At a conference this summer, Almeida met with fifty students from thirty-eight universities around the country to discuss the nuances of implementing the code. The students reached a consensus: Duke's code--with amendments requiring companies to pay their workers living wages and for the schools to disclose companies' factory addressesĐshould be adopted by every college. Unless exact addresses are released, Almeida says, it is virtually impossible to monitor the shops. "There is no way to specifically go to the places making Duke clothing--like trying to find a needle in a haystack," he says. "As long as companies can get Duke to keep [their locations] secret, they don't have to worry about people finding out what goes on in those machine gun-guarded factories."

Based on his travels to Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua later in the summer, Almeida is certain that companies are concerned about the American public finding out about their working conditions. The day after he and his group, sponsored by an international labor rights nonprofit organization, arrived in Honduras, they read in a national newspaper that their leader had been deemed "persona non grata" and a national business association had petitioned the government to deport the entire group. "It demonstrates the lengths to which corporations will go to make sure Americans don't find out about what is going on in the factories," he says. "They are deathly afraid of us talking to the workers."

While no licensee has yet been terminated during the infancy of the monitoring programs, Wilkerson fully expects that sooner or later he or the Collegiate Licensing Company will have to pull the plug. "We don't want to sever ties with any of our licensees," he says. "But I expect in the future there will be companies caught intentionally violating the code. Why would I want to own something made by people being beaten, kept out of school, cheated, being made to work fourteen or sixteen hours a day? I don't want any part of that. Duke doesn't want any part of that."

Rosenblum summarizes it best: "The administration, Jim, and the students had a common sense of where they wanted to go and a sense of how to get there. In other schools I'm aware of, there's been severe antagonism, or a focus on a particular company as a 'benchmark of evil.' Although Duke's approach is based on principles that could be applied to a certain company, everybody recognizes that policy change and social change really require disciplined thinking and work. [The Duke players] don't get caught up in name calling."

"Not to say," he adds, "that antagonism isn't helpful to the movement as a whole."

istory up close is messy. As history unfolds before the eyes of its actors, they rarely think about its sweeping arc, the larger forces at work that drive the events of which they're part. They have agendas, opinions, exams to take, mouths to feed, planes to catch. Yet somehow, at the center of history, you find personality. You find threads that tie people together unexpectedly--threads such as a common connection to a university: a willingness to identify with it, a need to take pride in it, an inner imperative to change it for the better. And by changing it, to take the first step in changing the world.

Baerman, a freelance writer, is assistant director of finance for auxiliary services at Duke.


Duke has hit the national rankings again, this time in Mother Jones magazineŐs fifth annual roundup of campus activism. Duke was ranked Number 1, thanks to its policy ensuring that university-licensed merchandise is not manufactured in overseas sweatshops. A student organization, Students Against Sweatshops, played a key role in shaping the policy.

In a September Associated Press story, Eric Edison ' 00 was quoted as saying that the ranking proves that Duke students can by fiery about more than basketball. "I'm really quite proud," Edison, who is chief of staff for the Duke Student Government, told the news service. "I expect that out of this school, and IŐd like to see us do even more. ThereŐs so much more we can build on, especially our work in the Durham community."

But Duke's debut appearance--at the top, no less--surprised some students, who said they had never thought of the university as a place of political activism. Ben Au '99, a leader with Students Against Sweatshops, said in the Duke Chronicle, "Overall, I don't know how activist people are, except about beer-on-points." He added, "I think activism too often involves an image of radicalism". The new activism in the Nineties is advocacy, talking calmly to the people involved."

Mother Jones, named for "orator, union organizer, and hell-raiser" Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, compiles the annual list by polling twenty-one organizations, including Amnesty International, the Center for Campus Organizing, Habitat for Humanity International, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Organization for Women, the Peace Corps, and the Student Environmental Action Coalition.

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