American and Chinese Students Fight for Rights of Workers

by Paul Garver

American student anti-sweatshop activists have won their first major victory in a decade-long campaign against sweatshop conditions and repression of labor unions in Central America. Russell Athletic, largest supplier of campus team uniforms and logo-wear, fired 145 union supporters and shut down a factory in Honduras after its 1200 workers tried to organize a union. Under pressure from mobilizations by the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), nearly one hundred college and university campuses ended their contracts with Russell. Now Russell Athletic has agreed to open a new unionized factory, hire the fired workers, and maintain neutrality towards union organizing at the seven other facilities owned by Russell Athletics and its parent company Fruit of the Loom in Honduras.

In the first weeks of November Chinese university students escalated their campaign to end abuses against contract labor at mainland Coca-Cola bottling plants. The students leafleted workers at Coke bottling factory gates with detailed explanations of the legal rights of contract workers (called “dispatch labor” in China). They also posted large banners on university campuses with slogans, images and details of abuses against contract laborers that they had documented in two major reports released in December 2008 and May 2009. Under pressure from the students, the Coca-Cola Company and its Swire Bottler partner have agreed to meet with the mainland student group to “enter into dialogue” about the issues they have raised.

Both of these stories deserve a fuller treatment, which follows.

The anti-sweatshop victory at Russell Athletic did not come out of the blue – it was the product of 10 years of organization and mobilization that persuaded 170 universities to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) , an independent monitoring group that inspected factories to ensure that they complied with the detailed codes of conduct adopted by colleges and universities under pressure from the student movement against sweatshops.

Russell Athletic is a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. Students mobilized against its anti-union conduct in Honduras not only by convincing the universities affiliated to the WRC that it had violated their supplier codes of conduct, but by agitating on dozens of other campuses, bringing Honduran speakers to the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, and picketing the NBA finals because the league had a licensing agreement with Russell. These creative and persistent tactics forced Russell Athletics and Fruit of the Loom to sign an agreement with the WRC not only to reopen a new factory by rehiring the fired workers and recognizing their union, but promising non-interference with union organizing drives at their other factories in Honduras.

After reaching the agreement with the WRC, Russell released a joint statement with the Honduran apparel workers’ union which asserted that the agreement was “intended to foster workers’ rights in Honduras and establish a harmonious relationship.”

Moises Alvarado, president of the union at the closed plant, said that “It was very important to receive the support of the universities. We are impressed by the social conscience of the students in the United States.”

Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, called the agreement unprecedented in scope and size and in the “transformative impact it can have in one of the hardest regions of the world to win respect for workers’ rights.”

However the USAS and WRC will have to remain vigilant so that the agreement is actually implemented. Several other promising union organizing agreements at maquiladora plants in Central America have turned to ashes when the newly unionized plants were shut down in retaliation.

Steven Greenhouse has written an excellent article for the New York Times detailing this agreement. You can also read more about it on the AFL-CIO NOW blog.

Student Campaign at Coke China

A group of courageous university students in China decided in 2008 to become advocates for one of the most exploited groups of Chinese workers. Tens of millions of so-called “dispatch workers” are hired by manpower agencies to work on a “temporary” basis in Chinese workplaces. They are drawn from the ranks of migrant workers (rural villagers who seek jobs in industrial areas, but do not enjoy the basic rights in the communities to which they move). Often working alongside permanent workers over many years, but at lower wages and without social benefits, these dispatch workers are not represented by the ineffective official unions either at the dispatch agency itself or at the employer for which they work.

In the summer of 2008 university students took seasonal jobs at five Coke bottling plants in order to investigate the condition of dispatch laborers first hand. Returning to their studies in the autumn, they issued a detailed investigative report in December 2008. In May 2009 they revisited these plants and two others, detailing their findings in a second report (Details of these reports and their background are contained in an article in China Labor News Translations to which I contributed. The article contains links to the students ‘ reports both in Chinese and in English translation).

In August 2009 two students who had returned to work at a Coke bottler in Hangzhou with an excessive ratio of dispatched laborers to permanent employees were physically assaulted by managers of the labor dispatch company. The Coca-Cola Company’s Greater China unit initially denied all the charges and disclaimed any responsibility for the actions of its bottlers or labor suppliers. However the company made marginal improvement for dispatched laborers in a couple of plants. In October the company communicated to the Hong-Kong based advocacy group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) that it would be willing to meet with the mainland Student Group and their supporters at SACOM to discuss the issues involved.

It is expected that a first meeting between the students and Coca-Cola will take place before the end of 2009. However the students are aware that Coca-Cola will not intervene to correct the underlying abuses of the dispatch labor system at its bottlers without increased public pressure. Therefore at the beginning of November the Student Group launched additional initiatives. Students leafleted workers at two Coke bottlers with information on rights of dispatched workers that are contained in the new Labor Contract law, but have not been implemented. They also began holding public meetings on campuses, and posted huge “big character “ banners to raise student awareness (One banner reads: “Heartless Coca-Cola, Illegal Labor Use, University Students Call on Coca-Cola to Obey Chinese Laws.”)

Although the students are acting completely within a legal framework by merely demanding that Coca-Cola comply with Chinese law, they are pushing the margins of official toleration (even for students and academics, who have looser restrictions than do workers). Several students have already been warned that they are risking their academic careers and worse. If Coca-Cola or its local bottlers were to call upon local authorities to repress the students, the consequences could be disastrous for these brave and idealistic students. But there is also the possibility that their actions may catalyze progressive social reforms that would reduce the social contradictions between capital and the most exploited sectors of Chinese workers. The neglect of the interests of hundreds of millions of migrant workers in the long run will impede the emergence of a more “harmonious” society that would balance China’s explosive economic development with the needs of China’s vast and growing working class.

Two weeks ago I made a presentation on the Coca-Cola case at a labor-management relations conference in Guangzhou hosted by the municipal labor federation, and organized by the labor relations faculties of the universities of Beijing and Frankfurt. (My power point presentation in English and Chinese translation is available upon request). Among the Chinese and foreign participants from both academic and labor environments at the conference there was much talk of the need to balance capitalist development in China with a more developed “socialist” leg, through the development of collective bargaining and stronger more effective labor unions. These kind of “social democratic” reforms so important to China’s future can only succeed in combination with grassroots organizing that mobilizes support from throughout Chinese society and its growing middle class in which university students are future opinion shapers.

Although the movement of Chinese students on behalf of worker rights is still embryonic in comparison with the anti-sweatshop movement on American campuses, they share certain broad characteristics. Both use imaginative tactics appropriate to their respective cultures, but exercise considerable responsibility and self-discipline in implementing them. Both spring from an idealistic dedication to expanding human and worker rights, while using strategic research and careful investigation to buttress their claims and to target global corporations that are vulnerable to organized consumer pressure.

It has been said that China and the USA are two strategic poles of the emerging global social and economic order, and certainly their respective directions will have great influence on the whole 21st century. But their student movements are developing with little mutual comprehension and exchange of ideas. Surely American and Chinese student activists have much to learn from each other.

3 Responses

  1. […] report on these discussions Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)What to read on ChinaAmerican and Chinese Students Fight for Rights of WorkersChina re-primes manufacturing pumpUS & […]

  2. […] reported on this blog in November 2009 the first significant victory of the American student movement against sweatshops, […]

  3. […] I reported on this blog in November 2009 the first significant victory of the American student movement against sweatshops, when Russell Athletic was forced to agree to rehire 1,200 Honduran workers who their jobs when their factory closed down in retaliation for their unionization.  The USAS campaign had persuaded 100 universities to sever or suspend their licensing agreements with Russell. […]

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