Home / General / This Day in Labor History: April 7, 2000

This Day in Labor History: April 7, 2000


On April 7, 2000, the Workers’ Rights Consortium formed at a New York conference. This apparel industry monitoring organization developed in response to the anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s and still exists today, trying to bring attention in the United States to the plight of foreign workers making apparel for our colleges and universities.

By the 1990s, almost all American textile production had moved overseas, largely to Latin America and Asia. The conditions in these factories were little changed from what workers in the United States had dealt with a century earlier. Moving from the northeast to the South to Mexico to Central America to Asia has been part of a long-term strategy by the apparel companies to find new workers to exploit and not have to improve working conditions or acquiesce to unions. Also in the 1990s, stories began appearing in the American media about the terrible working conditions in these sweatshops. Most famous were stories about Nike and the clothing line branded by TV host Kathie Lee Gifford. College students began campaigns to improve these conditions as they applied to the production of university licensed apparel.

Central to this movement was United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Formed in July 1998 by students at 30 campuses, USAS began providing a national organization for all these anti-sweatshop movements on American campuses. USAS members began conducting fact-finding tours, visiting Dominican Republic sweatshops making baseball hats for colleges where young women earned $40 in a 56-hour week. The movement continued to grow through that fall, with new chapters opening at campuses across the United States. Universities refused to sign any code of conduct with the exception of Duke University. Instead, schools sought to avoid responsibility through the Collegiate Licensing Corporation, a corporate front that claimed to monitor apparel industry conditions. It created a CLC code that forced no responsibility onto universities. This intended to make a claim that the schools cared, but it only made the anti-sweatshop activists more determined. Protests and sit-ins grew at schools around the country by 1999. Schools continued trying to cover themselves, now joining the Fair Labor Association, another corporate front group that provided only voluntary guidelines for schools.


Through this campaign, the students gained the support of the United Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). UNITE formed in 1985 as a merger of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (ACTWU). Both of these unions were decimated by 1985 from the outsourcing of their jobs overseas. UNITE hoped that combining forces would help marshal resources to fight this, although the job losses continued. Facing the end of the union, UNITE quickly saw the growing sweatshop movement as useful allies in the war against the exploitation of apparel workers that these unions had fought since the beginning of the century. UNITE offered professional assistance, funds, and training to the burgeoning sweatshop movement. The AFL-CIO also chipped in, giving USAS $40,000 in 1999-2000.

In April 2000, activists met in New York City in order to develop strategies to help hold universities to anti-sweatshop pledges. It created the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor monitoring organization dedicated to the ethical sourcing of clothing for colleges and universities. It is supposed to define standards, conduct independent external monitoring, and force contracting companies to disclose wages, hours, and working conditions, with an independent agency to determine violations of the code. It places reports of factory inspections online that you can peruse.


The WRC developed connections with labor unions and NGOs in the nations where clothing production took place. It based its investigations on complaints it heard from the workers and affiliated agencies on the ground. It took that information, conducted investigations, and sought to press university administrations on its findings to ensure their contractors were complying with the agreed upon codes. In January 2001, the WRC took on its first case. Workers at a factory in Atlixco, Mexico complained that their employer, the Korean operator Kukdong, which had contracts from Nike and Reebok, used child labor, subjected workers to verbal harassment and physical violence, fed workers spoiled food in the company cafeteria, did not provide mandated maternity leave, and illegally fired workers. In other words, standard treatment of workers in the global apparel industry that continues today. Within a week, the WRC was in the factory and interviewing workers. It filed a report and began to pressure university administrations. This all led to Nike and Reebok forcing Kukdong to rehire the fired workers, improve the cafeteria food, increase wages, and recognize the factory’s independent union (an important point considering the corrupt official Mexican unions).

This early victory provided the WRC needed legitimacy. At that time, the WRC had the support of 44 universities. Ultimately, the WRC provided much needed American attention on apparel sweatshops, but the reality is that there is not a whole lot the WRC can do to force a fundamental transformation of the entire industry. So long as students were actively forcing change, they could create some real victories for workers. But the fundamentals of the global apparel system require government action to force real changes. Simply put, the WRC even at its height had no conceivable way to monitor conditions at the thousands of sweatshops scattered around the world. No independent monitoring organization will ever have those resources.

The WRC was never able to get the U.S. government to take the issue seriously enough to force its corporations to make changes or to pass laws that would create enforceable standards for outsourced production imported back into the United States. Instead, the free trade mania continues in this nation that encourages the exploitation of the world’s workers by American corporations for cheap goods that we can buy without knowing anything about the conditions of production. Despite all this work by the anti-sweatshop movement, a WRC/Center for American Progress report from 2013 showed that real wages for apparel workers around the world fell between 2001 and 2011.

After 9/11, the sweatshop movement faded from prominence in young activist communities, with opposing the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and other actions of the Bush administration taking precedence. Yet the movement remained relatively strong at some campuses and has been rekindled to some extent in recent years, partially through events like the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1100 workers again drawing the attention of young Americans. Today, the WRC has 180 college and university affiliates, as well as 6 high schools. This affiliation, which includes the University of Rhode Island, can often be pretty loose. URI has no real anti-sweatshop movement and while the university is aware of it, to my knowledge anyway, there’s no real active movement on these issues coming from my school.

This is the 141st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Derelict

    Missing from so many of these discussions is the plight of apparel workers in US Pacific territories such as the Marshall Islands. Under the leadership of Tom Delay and Trent Lott, Congress passed regulations allowing clothing made in these possessions to bear the “Made In USA” label. At the same time, workers there were cut off from the basic rights available to actual American workers. The whole situation is as horrible for these “American” workers as it is for anyone slaving away in a sweatshop in Bangladesh or Viet Nam.

    • Yes, that is certainly an important issue. Not sure how many sweatshops are still open in our colonies though. Labor has become so cheap in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia.

    • Bruce Vail

      Marshall Islands is not a US colony or territory. It’s an independent country whose ‘Compact of Free Association’ with the US gives the US government the authority to conduct the foreign affairs of the Marshall Islands.

      I know this because shortly after the Compact was finalized they established a ‘flag of convenience’ based on the Liberian model. A shipowner can adopt the Marshall Islands flag and the sailors are subject only to Marshall Islands labor law, not US law.

  • Bruce Vail

    Post seems unclear on whether the unions formed USAS to be an arm of their campaigns, or whether it was a student movement that gained union support. It was always my understanding that the USAS was a creature of UNITE. (I don’t think at this late stage there is any good reason to be coy about the role of the unions in forming USAS.)

    • USAS was not an arm of UNITE. UNITE definitely helped USAS form, but there were some tensions there as well.

  • stuck working

    I think the conclusion of this post undersells how active USAS and the WRC are. Just yesterday, USAS students at the University of Alabama organized a sit-in to demand that their school join the WRC *and* students at NYU sat in to protest labor conditions at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus: https://www.facebook.com/UnitedStudentsAgainstSweatshops/posts/10152956663396704

    • Bruce Vail

      Has USAS had any success in convincing colleges/universities to source their licensed apparel at unionized shops in the US?

      I’m vaguely aware that the National Football League and Major League Baseball have agreements to source some of their licensed apparel in union shops here.

      • Well, it’s not really USAS’s goal to bring production back to the U.S. That was the source of tensions with UNITE–the students were uninterested in protectionist politics, whereas UNITE obviously was.

        • Bruce Vail

          I didn’t realize that was a point of contention.

          I’d regard that as a strategic mistake on the part of USAS student leaders. College administrators will quickly return to the foreign sweat shop model when student agitation dies down, unless there is a commitment to sourcing at a shop in the US. Given the sloppy and careless way that procurement is done at many colleges, it wouldn’t surprise me if most college president had no idea where their licensed apparel is made, or whether it’s in a sweat shop or not.

  • Bruce Vail

    I think the issue of climate change has captured the imagination of a lot of today’s student activists.

    Students have been pretty prominent in a lot of the activism here in Maryland over fracking, Keystone, etc.

  • Bruce Vail

    I’m curious whether you are an adviser, or have some other role, with URI’s USAS affiliate?

    • We don’t have an active USAS chapter here.

  • shah8

    You know, it’s kind of amazing just how Korean multinationals don’t get as much flack as they should for their utter exploitative attitude…

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