Panelists Detail Win for Sweatshop Union

Anti-sweatshop activitsts applauded a rare victory in union-organizing when factory workers and representatives of the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a non-profit sweatshop watchdog group, testified to the “unprecendented” success of recent efforts to create an independent, democratic union in the Kukdong apparel plant in Mexico last Thursday.

Workers in Kukdong, a factory that manufactures university logo apparel for Nike, have complained of abusive working conditions and overbearing management but managed to organize, aided by an intense effort on the part of the WRC, founded two years ago by a consortium of non-profits, universities and non-governmental organizations.

Panelists said they hoped to illuminate the key ingredients that led to the success of the Kukdong movement, in the hope that the same mix will be achieved in future cases of workers’ rights violations.

Speakers noted, in particular, the role played by American universities in helping the workers to acheive their goals. The pressure the universities put on their garment suppliers to enforce their codes of conduct forced the Mexican government to “open up its ears,” said Huberto Juarez Nunez, an expert on the development of export industries in Mexico.

“It’s important for the very engaged students and faculty to see the good that has come of all their efforts, to recognize that this kind of action can indeed have a positive effect,” Scott Nova, the WRC’s executive director, told The Crimson.

Nova also noted the special influence of elite universities—Harvard arguably chief among them—in furthering causes of social reform.

Universities, he said, can influence social movements in two ways, by their market power and by their “cultural influence.”

“What’s been clear is that there are universities with a particularly strong influence...and there’s no university greater than Harvard in terms of cultural status as an institution of moral teaching,” Nova said.

Harvard is not currently a member of the WRC—which now encompasses 92 universities—although students on campus have long called on the Harvard administration to join.

Thursday’s event at Harvard marked the first engagement of the panel’s 10-day tour to speak to students, faculty and administrators on 12 university campuses across America.

“In many ways, the incredible investment, creativity, courage and persistence of the workers should give us all a great deal of hope,” Nova said.

In addition to Nova and Nunez, presenters included Nunez’s research assistant, Catalina Guzman Albaful, and Kukdong union organizer Marcela Munoz Tepepa.

Assisted by a student translator enlisted at the last minute, Tepepa described the oppressive conditions that she and others had suffered in the Kukdong factory. She spoke of spoiled cafeteria food, physical and psychological mistreatment at the hands of managers, and painfully low wages. Workers, mostly young women and largely single mothers, were paid only three or four pesos per day, while workers actually require 100, Tepepa said.

Because of the WRC’s investigation, and because of concern expressed by universities supplied by Kukdong, the government of Mexico began to recognize the unjust state the factory, the panelists said.

In addition to the creation of the worker’s union, the panelists said they counted the factory’s full reinstatement of all the leaders of the union organizing effort, who were fired when the movement began, as its chief success.

“Negotiating reinstatement—that never happens in Mexico,” Nunez said.