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In one of the largest anti-sweatshop demonstrations to date, about 300 to 400 Yale University students rallied yesterday to demand that their administration withdraw from the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC).
Both the FLA and the WRC are organizations designed to monitor overseas sweatshops, but activists said clothing manufacturers have too great an influence on the FLA
"We think the FLA is a sham," said Yale senior Amanda E. Bell, one of the organizers of yesterday's rally. "We think it's a public relations ploy by corporations. We would like to see Yale take a moral stand [by withdrawing]."
Harvard Attorney Allan A. Ryan Jr., the administrator most responsible for sweatshop policy, said he supported the Yale students' right to rally, but that the action would not affect Harvard's support of the FLA.
"I'm glad to see the first amendment exercised in New Haven," he said. "This clearly is a matter of concern to students, administrators, universities, everyone. If they can get students together for a rally, then more power to them."
Yale students protested for an hour yesterday in front of Woodbridge Hall, a major administrative building. Protesters chanted, waved signs, shook soda-can noisemakers and listened to speeches given by undergraduates, union representatives and faculty members, including noted professor of political science Rogers M. Smith.
More than 300 students signed tiny blue paper T-shirts condemning the FLA.
"The crowd was very excited and would just start spontaneously cheering," said Bell, who addressed the rally.
The action at Yale continued a two-week flurry of anti-sweatshop activism on campuses across the country. Protesters have staged sit-ins at four schools, including the University of Pennsylvania. A two-day sit-in at Johns Hopkins University is still ongoing.
Two schools--the Universities of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin---have withdrawn from the FLA and five have joined the WRC, raising the total membership of the organization to eight. About 130 colleges are members of the FLA.
At Harvard, members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) have been urging the University to withdraw from the FLA and join the WRC for almost a year but have met with little success.
The Yale administration has also remained steadfast in their support of the FLA.
"Yale is a member of the FLA and we plan to remain an active member," said Thomas P. Conroy, deputy director of Yale's office for public affairs.
Conroy downplayed the significance of yesterday's demonstration.
"What's important at the end is the argument and the merits of the argument and not the fact of a rally," he said.
Bell said it has been very difficult for Yale activists to communicate their concerns to the administration. She compared it to "talking to a wall."
"We feel like we really have to struggle to get a meeting with anyone in the administration," she said. "There's no regular way to communicate."
Bell said Yale President Robert C. Levin met with protesters in the fall, but then broke off all contact until this month.
Levin did not issue a response to yesterday's demonstration. A staffer in his office said Levin was on an alumni outreach trip yesterday and probably was not aware the rally was taking place.
Yale protesters said they have given the administration an ultimatum for taking action.
If Yale does not withdraw from the FLA by March 27, student activists pledged to continue their public protest campaign.
"If that deadline were to pass without a sign from the administration, we feel we would be forced to take more direct action," Bell said.
PSLM has not issued such a direct challenge to the Harvard administration.
The channels of communication between administrators and students are more open here than at Yale. PSLM representatives meet with Ryan on a regular basis.
"There are certainly people here who will listen to us, but the question is what's going to happen because of it," said PSLM member Benjamin L. McKean '02. "As long as Harvard's in the FLA and not in the WRC, [direct action] is possible."
McKean, who is also a Crimson editor, pointed to the ongoing sit-in at Johns Hopkins University, involving about 25 students, as evidence of the strength of the national student labor movement.
He said this sit-in is especially significant because protesters have extended their demands beyond the issue of sweatshop policy. They want Johns Hopkins to institute a living wage for all university employees, in addition to withdrawing from the FLA.
PSLM's living wage campaign has made a similar demand to the Harvard administration but has not achieved its aims.
"If the living wage movement can come together like the sweatshop movement has then it would be terribly powerful," McKean said.
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