Penn First University to Depart From FLA
Nine days after students began occupying her office, University of Pennsylvania (Penn) President Judith Rodin gave in to student demands and signed an agreement making Penn the first school in the country to withdraw from the Fair Labor Association (FLA).
Rodin signed the agreement yesterday afternoon, more than 150 hours into the sit-in and about 36 hours into a nationwide two-day fast in solidarity with the protesters. A dozen Harvard students participated in the fast.
Penn students ended the sit-in in exchange for their school's withdrawal from the FLA, an organization designed to monitor working conditions in overseas collegiate apparel factories.
Penn's move increases pressure on Harvard to follow suit.
But University Attorney Allan A. Ryan Jr., Harvard's point person on sweatshop policy, said Penn's decision would not immediately affect Harvard policy.
"We're not going to pull out because Penn pulls out," he said. "Penn makes Penn's decisions, and Harvard makes Harvard's decisions."
Labor activists, both at Harvard and Penn, argue that the FLA is tainted by its close ties to the corporations it is supposed to monitor.
Instead, they urge schools to affiliate with the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a grassroots organization incorporating students and workers.
While Penn did withdraw from the FLA, it did not agree to join the WRC. Yesterday's agreement charged an ad hoc committee on sweatshop labor to study the two organizations and make a recommendation on their relative merits to Rodin by Feb. 29, at which point she will make the final decision.
The chair of the committee, Penn professor of public policy Howard Kunreuther, said rejoining the FLA is still possible.
"It's absolutely...on the table. [Penn] is withdrawing pending the committee's report," he said.
Penn students said they initiated the sit-in, which involved over 50 students, because of their frustration with the administration.
"We just weren't getting anywhere in dialogues," said Miriam R. Joffe-Block, the Penn senior who coordinated the protest. "We felt this was the only way to get the administration to see that we were really serious and to take action."
Penn activists said they hoped their victory would prompt other schools to reconsider their labor monitoring policies.
They said the sit-in was a success because of Penn's withdrawal and the national attention it garnered.
"It really brought a lot of attention to this issue, both on Penn's campus and across the country," said Joffe-Block, who signed the agreement with Rodin on behalf of the protesters.
But Ryan said Harvard has long been aware of the issue.
"We've also taken this situation seriously. We don't need Penn to draw our attention to this issue," he said.
Harvard's Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) has urged the University to withdraw from the FLA for more than a year.
PSLM member Benjamin L. McKean '02 said Penn's decision to leave the FLA paves the way for Harvard to undertake a similar action.
"Harvard wants to do the right thing, but they don't necessarily want to be the first to do it," said McKean, who is also a Crimson editor.
Ryan said the University is continuing to study the issue.
"It's too early to choose," he said. "Harvard is not going to turn its back on any organization--whether it be the FLA or the WRC--that might offer some thoughtful and sensible way to address these problems."
Penn students said yesterday's agreement marked a "first step" in the process and vowed to continue agitating until their school joined the WRC.
They said the nine-day sit-in demonstrated the depth of their commitment.
"They've been long days," said
Penn first-year Anna R. Roberts. "It's not easy sitting in a small room all day, not washing your hair for five days, making sure to sound good for the press and dealing with a pissed-off administration."
Their success, Penn activists said, showed the influence that students can have.
"It's a real testament to student power. Students really can make tangible changes," Joffe-Block said.
McKean said Penn's success inspires PSLM to continue their program of direct action.
"We're always very excited when other students win victories, victories that we ourselves seek, because it hopefully brings us closer to ours," he said.