The University Record, March 6, 2000

President agrees to ‘conditional’ membership in WRC

By Jane R. Elgass

President Lee C. Bollinger announced Feb. 18 that the U-M will “conditionally join” the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC). The still-to-be-formed WRC was developed by United Students Against Sweatshops and consists of a system to verify and inspect conditions in factories that produce licensed collegiate logo items.

Members of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality (SOLE) have been urging University membership in WRC for some months, and had set a Feb. 2 deadline for that action. At that time, the president indicated he was deferring a decision to join the organization.

Bollinger’s decision on conditional membership, in which the U-M is joined by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Indiana University, follows the Feb. 16–18 occupations of LS&A Dean Shirley Neuman’s office, where SOLE representatives set up a mock sweatshop, complete with factory noises.

In his statement, Bollinger said the U-M “will conditionally join the Workers’ Rights Consortium in order to try to work toward a fair and just monitoring system and governance structure that will address our principles and will show sensitivity towards licensee concerns.”

“We [the U-M, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Indiana University] take this step without endorsing all of the provisions stated in the preliminary charter of the WRC, which will meet in April in New York City. As part of the WRC process, we will work actively to address the concerns articulated by the Advisory Committee, such as the fairness and credibility of the monitoring system as well as governance structure and organizational viability.

“We will participate in the process so long as we are making progress toward achieving these goals and we commit to using our best efforts to advance the process.

“We will rely on our respective Advisory Committees or successor groups composed of faculty, staff and students, to inform our judgment about whether participation in the process continues to be warranted in our universities’ best interest.

“We also will commit resources to support appropriate pilot projects or other efforts to create effective education or enforcement mechanisms.”

In March 1999, the University released the Human Rights/Anti-Sweatshop Code of Conduct to which it holds vendors who are licensed to produce apparel and other items bearing U-M logos. The code’s provisions include ensuring compensation standards, humane limitations on required work hours, limitations on child labor, and a safe and healthy work environment.

A faculty-staff-student advisory committee, headed by public policy and political science Prof. John Chamberlin, was appointed in June to make recommendations on ensuring and monitoring compliance, public disclosure of manufacturing sites, appropriate compensation levels and the protection of women’s rights.

To date, the Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights has:

  • Helped implement the full disclosure requirement of the code, effective Jan. 1.

  • Evaluated and proposed revisions to the code.

  • Participated in collective efforts with other universities to better understand and improve the conditions of the workers who produce licensed goods.

  • Studied methods of ensuring compliance with the code.

    “This last issue,” Bollinger said in his statement, “has been the most difficult and most controversial. Virtually every commentator admits that there is no immediate solution to the longstanding labor problems spanning continents and cultures. Two primary alternatives—the Workers’ Rights Consortium and the Fair Labor Association—have emerged.”

    And while activists and the Michigan Student Assembly urged membership in the WRC, “the Advisory Committee has expressed concerns about the WRC, particularly in the areas of the approach toward licensees, the investigatory process and the governance structure. Even advocates of the WRC admit that many key questions remain unanswered.”

    The president noted in his statement that the Advisory Committee believes “it would be appropriate for the University to participate in the evolution of the WRC,” that it would be “consistent for the University to continue dialogue” about the WRC and to “provide some resources to further this process. We are open to joining any process that will advance the important goals we have articulated.”