Inside the University of Massachusetts' bustling Student Union, Michael Burns walks past tables staffed by students pleading for donations to cyclone victims in India and for signatures to free Mumia Abu-Jamal from Death Row. One table is covered with signs demanding universal health care, stricter nuclear weapons control and concern for depleted uranium. "That's your one-stop shopping for student activism table," jokes Burns, a graduate student in labor studies.
While he can see the humor in college idealism, Burns maintains faith in his own cause, the No-Sweat campaign. Through United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), founded in 1997, students at more than 150 universities and colleges are asking corporations for more regulation in factories that produce clothing with their schools' logos.
Students have draped black cloth over Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line at Wal-Mart stores, taken over store intercom systems to alert customers to the factory conditions behind clothes, and, last February, occupied the president's office at Georgetown University for more than 80 hours.
Activists want the locations of garment factories to be identified because, they say, many are in poor developing countries where workers are exploited.
Corporations occasionally give in to some student demands--Nike recently disclosed foreign factory locations--but more often they seem unfazed by these young, perhaps naive, idealists. Laura McSpedon, one of the student organizers at Georgetown, was frustrated with Wal-Mart's indifference to her concerns. "We didn't get an official response from Wal-Mart," she said. "It's discouraging that they can go ahead and ignore us."
College administrations, however, which often sign contracts with companies for university clothing, are sometimes more attentive to students' requests, especially when the students take over buildings.
When junior Andrew Milmore led his fellow Georgetown students into the president's office to protest the administration's lack of cooperation with the No-Sweat movement, supportive students delivered food and beverages to the protesters. The protesters left after obtaining a written promise of future cooperation.
Despite serious demands and tedious grunt work--flyers need to be designed and posted; meetings organized and scheduled; research assigned and completed--the activists try to take some time for pure fun. "You have to have parties. Otherwise, the meetings get so depressing you want to commit suicide," says Burns.
What motivates these well-fed, comfortably housed students to fight for workers thousands of miles and a language away? A concrete answer seems to elude even the most ardent activists. Many recall Thoreau's idea that citizens must take responsibility for the actions of their country. Since American corporations are involved and the products of alleged abuse occupy students' dresser drawers, activists feel compelled to protect workers.
Some cynics say these students are motivated by guilt at their own affluence, or bored by the stability and security in their lives, or even brainwashed pawns following persuasive rhetoric. The activists resent this criticism, pointing to the irresponsibility of people who don't stand up for the rights of the exploited.
Students even have traveled to foreign factories to document the conditions themselves. Along with five other students, including two from the University of Kentucky and University of Arkansas, Middlebury senior Alex Zwerdling spent two weeks this summer meeting local labor organizers and talking to factory workers in El Salvador.
With the help of two translators, he learned of death threats workers had received for trying to organize unions. He met children who were hungry because factory wages were insufficient to feed a family.
"When they saw North Americans interested in them, at first they were afraid because they assumed we were factory representatives. They're afraid to talk because they get fired for complaining," he said.
During his trip, Zwerdling helped make a video so other students could get a behind-the-scenes look at factories. He hopes to "make factories more transparent so consumers know what's going on."
Back at the ivory towers, the struggle to be a politically savvy consumer continues. "You can't go through a day without buying something made in a sweatshop," Burns says. "I'm sure this was made in China," he says, twirling a pen. "Even idealists have trouble staying pure."