Thursday, May 01, 2008

A History Lesson for USAS

The Penn State chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has been pushing Old Main for several year to sign-on to the Designated Supplier Program (DSP) which will be run, once it is operational, by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). Two weeks ago push came to shove, when 31 USAS protesters were arrested and charged with defiant trespass when they refused to leave Old Main at the end of the business day.

The movement to eliminate sweatshop labor, while smaller in scale on campus and less well known in to the general public, is, nonetheless, reminiscent of the movement to end apartheid in South Africa a generation ago. Twenty odd years ago the protesters wanted the University to divest holdings from its investment portfolio of companies which did business with South Africa. Old Main resisted and argued that such an action could expose it to legal jeopardy, just as today they argue that joining the DSP could result in anti-trust litigation against the University. Unlike today's anti-sweatshop protesters, the anti-apartheid protesters had allies on the Board of Trustees who were willing to speak out in favor of divestment and who voted to do so. The BOT led by its corporate members voted down divestment. Further, during the eighties many university divested, while Penn State dithered. And today many other universities have signed on to the DSP, while Penn State drags it feet

A very nice summary of the fight to divest can be found in a 1987 Collegian op-ed piece by two advocates for divestment, Matt Baker and Sue Sturgis, who also were then president and vice president, respectively, of the Undergraduate Student Government.

Oh yeah, Penn State did eventually divest. And this is the most important part of the story for the anti-sweatshop protesters, it took a letter to University President Bryce Jordan and Board of Trustees chairman Obie Snyder from Governor Bob Casey,the father of the current senator, to get Penn State to do so.

USAS should be aware that they are not just fighting Spanier. They are fighting against the corporate culture of Penn State. If they are going to get Spanier to sign-on to DSP they will need the help of some heavy hitters. My advise: Give Senator Casey a call and remind him of his father actions against apartheid.

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