Categorized | Global View

Justice for All

A sweeping red banner with the loopy letters “WRC” hung from a wooden beam in the Wilson Hall basement, framing a table spilling over with food. The smell of tortillas wafted upward and surrounded the party-goers, as they clambered around each other to fill their plates with just a little bit more. A little girl in a gold-trimmed purple dress with a plate full of baby carrots wandered past the couches that dwarfed her small frame. The syncopated beat of music reverberated in between the laughter and talking of 30 people – children, adults and students – as they gathered for a celebration on Sept. 28.[1]
“Finally!” exclaimed James Madison freshman Cat Batsios. “It is insulting that they [MSU] would have stalled this long.”
The relatively small campus group produced so much university-wide elation over this victory, as years of unrelenting pressure on the MSU administration finally paid off. MSU Students for Economic Justice had finally convinced MSU to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), ending a battle with the university administration that had lasted for five years. For a group with only 35-40 core members (but a giant list-serv of more than 350 e-mail addresses), they have made an unforgettable gain in campus activism.
With the decision of President Lou Anna K. Simon and the MSU administration to join the WRC, MSU is now in league with seven other Big Ten Schools: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. Neil Sardana, 2004 MSU graduate and lifelong education student, has been involved in Students for Economic Justice (SEJ) since 2003. [pull3]His demeanor was a mixture of joy and relief as he leaned in, both due to physical stature and the low rumble of noise, to speak at the victory party. Sardana said that the fight for WRC membership was an “amazing struggle” and is the biggest thing the organization has done.
“We finally achieved it and get to celebrate it,” Sardana said.
The WRC is focused on “ensuring that factories producing clothing and other goods bearing college and university names respect the basic rights of workers,” according to the organization’s Web site. A percentage of the money from licensing fees for including the MSU name on clothing go straight to the WRC, Sardana said. With the membership to the consortium, the conditions of factory workers and the origins of this clothing can be understood.
“MSU is now affiliated with the WRC, and investigation is the first step,” Sardana said, his twinkling eyes framed by wire-rimmed glasses. “We need to enforce certain standards and make sure workers…are not being abused and are being paid fair wages and are allowed to unionize.”
In addition to group support, SEJ has a student following that showed at the victory party. Political theory senior Andy Hickner found out about the party on the Facebook Web site, and he said he applauds the fact that the university is following other Big Ten Schools in becoming aligned with the WRC.
“This is something that will make a difference in people’s lives in terms of the demand for products of MSU apparel,” Hickner said.
Support for SEJ is not prevalent in all areas of campus, either due to open criticism or lack of information. James Madison freshman Whitney Mulhauser said she “agrees with [SEJ aims of] making things equal and fair,” but she is not knowledgeable on what the group specifically does. According to international relations and Asian studies junior Maggie Corser, the opposition of students or campus groups does not deter the focus of SEJ: fighting for human rights.
“Other people’s criticism has no bearing on [SEJ] being effective and making powerful social change,” Corser said.[2]
SEJ has been fighting for human and labor rights causes far before WRC membership. English and social relations junior Tommy Simon has been involved in boycotts against companies like Mount Olive Pickles and Coca-Cola. Although short in stature, Simon’s leadership presence is unavoidable; he spoke at the victory party and assumed the spotlight at the SEJ meeting on Oct. 4. A three-year member, Simon said that the organization takes up any causes with “poor labor practices,” waiting for workers to make a call for action.
“We are an ally to most progressive movements in the area,” Simon said at the victory party as tufts of thick brown hair fell around his dark-rimmed glasses and light forehead. “We try to give workers power; we don’t impose our beliefs on anyone.”[51]
An SEJ meeting is open to anyone who is interested, and a different attendee is in charge of creating an agenda and running the meetings each week. Attendance is taken in an unorthodox manner; on Oct. 4, the requirement was for each person to sing the theme song of one’s life, unaccompanied and a cappella. For one who cannot sing, this is a daunting task, especially in front of a group of strangers, but once Simon broke out into “The Joker” by The Steve Miller Band, resounding laughter cut any remaining tension.
Although many causes could be classified as being liberal, the individual political affiliations of members do not hinder the success of SEJ. Corser said that while politics may affect the voting process, the main way in which SEJ decides whether or not to pursue a cause, the group is still able to operate cohesively.
“People are free to have any political feelings, although a lot of issues are liberal,” Corser said.
SEJ is allied with Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlan (MEXA) on many issues, and MEXA (pronounced “meh-cha”) celebrated alongside SEJ at the victory party. According to the organization’s Web site, MEXA “fights for the rights of [Chicanos] on both the campus and in the community” as one of 400 chapters in the United States. [pull2]
MEXA focuses on educational aims for Chicanos, but takes up the fight for migrant workers, many of whom are Chicano.
“We became such close organizations because we were boycotting Mount Olive pickles together,” Simon said. He noted the continued closeness of the two groups due to the closely intertwined goals of fighting “unfair labor practices and exploitation of workers.”
MEXA worked in coalition with SEJ to join the consortium, especially during the fifth year of the campaign, Ileana Cortez said. Corser cited this close relationship with MEXA as “integral to our success.”
“We came on board this year and things came through,” said Cortez, a social work sophomore with a Chicano-Latino studies specialization.
Members of SEJ came down from the heights of celebration in order to prepare for the Career Gallery on Oct. 5-6 at the Breslin Center. A job fair such as this is traditionally thought of as an opportunity for students to get dressed in fine business wear and meet employers for that elusive job in the “real world.” SEJ took the presence of many companies considered immoral by members as a time to act, and had no fear of administration coming down hard on the protests.
“There are corrupt corporations hiring MSU students: everything from Coca-Cola to weapons contractors,” Simon said. SEJ planned to split up and conquer the career fair in groups: some with fliers, and some with their voices from inside of the Breslin Center “until getting kicked out,” Simon said.
The purpose of SEJ presence at the fair served to “expose the truths to how evil…[certain] corporations are,” Simon said in an e-mail.
Although the new affiliation with the consortium is a huge step, SEJ still has work to do on the sweatshop labor front. The most prominent aspect of this task is a pending request with the MSU administration for university apparel to be produced by specific supplier factories. While membership in the WRC is necessary, SEJ, supported by MEXA, is asking the university to take things a step further in ensuring that logo clothing is being made in fair conditions. SEJ has composed in-depth notes to President Simon with these requests clearly outlined.[3]
“…To truly end the production of our clothing in sweatshops, Michigan State University must take a more proactive and precise role,” the cover letter to President Simon reads. “We must ensure that our apparel is made where workers have a voice on the job and can bargain for a living wage.”
According to the document with the cover letter, titled “Designated Suppliers Program,” factories must fulfill certain standards “to qualify as a designated university supplier.” Some of these standards include employees receiving a living wage, the factory “producing primarily or exclusively for the university logo goods market,” and “the factory [demonstrating] full compliance with internationally recognized labor standards,” according to the document.
Although she does not support sweatshop labor, James Madison freshman Whitney Mulhauser thinks that most of MSU fails to act out against the practice. “I would rather pay more for clothes made outside of sweatshops,” Mulhauser said.
Although many students do support the causes of SEJ, more recognition could be bestowed on the perseverance of the small organization that works so doggedly to give voice to voiceless sweatshop laborers.
“We work on coalition building, and 30 to 40 campus groups—about 5,000 students—support us,” Simon said of SEJ’s small size but large support on campus.
“The size of the group doesn’t matter,” Batsois said, claiming that how the problem is addressed will determine whether or not it is solved.
Corser agreed and said that the small core membership has fought for many SEJ victories, and the small group size allows members “to get really educated on issues.”
“We are able to keep each other informed,” Corser said.
SEJ carries the ideal of equality from fighting for outside workers to the heart of the organization. At each meeting, members have equal opportunities to voice support or rejection of ideas, and members have the choice to lead or simply listen to the opinions of their counterparts. Meetings are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays in the Wisconsin Room of the MSU Union.
“We’re all equal members,” Sardana said. “There is no president and no secretary. We are a non-hierarchal organization.”
“[SEJ is] a group with values I agree with, and I like their tactics,” Simon said. “I wanted to work for good things.”
And even though activist work is incredibly time-consuming, SEJ members have other passions, ranging from volunteer work—Corser volunteers with a refugee family in Lansing—to pursuing a major related to an entirely different spectrum than activism—Simon said that creative writing is his escape.
“Sometimes, activists are looked on as members of a counterculture,” Simon said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not connected to pop culture.”
But Corser does not deny the incredible scope to which activist work occupies her time. “Once you get into activism, it becomes a large part of your life,” Corser said, adding that SEJ does outside activities together, such as playing soccer. [4]
Lacking a means to inform all of campus about group activities, many Spartans are uninformed about specific causes that SEJ takes up. More than eager to talk about SEJ, Simon said that the voice of SEJ on campus largely depends on word of mouth and hearsay from friends with campus groups.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the trivial aspects of life, groups such as SEJ can remind us that there are causes worth fighting for. An average student might not think about labor practices and worker exploitation, but these are everyday terms for an SEJ member, and changing this is a matter of education.
“The main means to get the student body informed is to do things that are visual and public,” Simon said. Actions range from the peaceful, such as handing out fliers and creating displays, to the forceful, like “entering the administration building and causing a ruckus.”

For more information about MSU Students for Economic Justice, please visit http://msusej.org.
For more information on the WRC, please visit http://www.workersrights.org.

Leave a Reply