A year ago today, Yale’s campus was afire with activism.
April 10, 2000 marked the sixth day of the Beinecke Plaza occupation by Students Against Sweatshops, a group advocating a change in the University’s apparel licensing policy. The group camped out on Beinecke and refused to leave until Yale President Richard Levin accepted their demands. SAS sent Levin a letter listing several demands, including leaving the Fair Labor Association and joining the Worker’s Rights Consortium, both watchdog groups that monitor overseas apparel manufacturers. SAS members view the WRC as more confrontational with multinational corporations than the FLA, whose approach they view as more cooperative.
SAS slept out on Beinecke Plaza for a total of 16 days, with considerable presence from members of other groups, including the Yale College Democrats, on-campus religious organizations and others. The Yale College Council election included a referendum asking students whether Yale should join the Worker’s Rights Consortium. Undergraduates answered in the affirmative, with the support of more than 72 percent of the students who voted in the election. Levin promised to discuss joining the Worker’s Rights Consortium with other Ivy League presidents and hired a new assistant secretary, Donald Filer, to work on licensing issues and serve as a liaison between SAS and the University.
This year, there has been nothing like last year’s sweatshop movement — few protests, no sleep-ins and no mass meetings.
Where have Yale’s activists gone?
Nearly a year after SAS’s invasion of Beinecke Plaza that galvanized the activist community and captivated the student body, many student activists have moved on to other things. Students formerly involved with SAS have begun to work for change in other areas, specifically New Haven politics and union organizing.
Student activists said the reasons for this shift vary from changing opportunities and timing to a frustration with Yale’s bureaucracy.
Stephen Osserman ’02, a member of SAS, said many students were discouraged with the results of the Beinecke occupation and thought though they had made serious inroads, they had accomplished little to nothing.
“The problem is that SAS failed at claiming our victories and celebrating our victories,” Osserman said. “We allowed the administration to tell their story of it, which is we hadn’t affected anything. It’s not true, but when you allow yourself to be convinced of that, it’s hard to get reenergized.”
United Students Against Sweatshops was established in 1997 to stop sweatshop labor in the United States and abroad, and since then local chapters have been established at universities throughout the United States. SAS at Yale, which began in 1997, is affiliated with the national organization and is committed to the same goals as the national organization. SAS saw the switch from the FLA to the WRC as a step in ending Yale’s promotion of sweatshop labor.
Osserman lists among SAS’s accomplishments the FLA disclosure of factory locations, a growing national movement and a change in corporate climate such that Nike and other multinational corporations now respond to SAS on a national level.
While Yale’s chapter seems to have settled down, on a national and international level student activists at other schools continue to make inroads. The Worker’s Rights Consortium now claims 75 colleges and universities as members, including four of the eight Ivy League institutions. A group called the Collegiate Living Wage Association was formed among many schools including WRC member school Brown University, in order to provide academic research on sweatshops to both the WRC and the FLA.
But because SAS failed to get Yale to join the WRC, activists involved with the sweatshop protest said they failed in their main objective.
“Looking at it narrowly, we didn’t get Yale to join the WRC, so we failed,” Osserman said.
Associate Secretary Donald Filer, who was hired as a liaison to SAS, said joining the WRC is not the primary issue.
“I thought that we resolved a long time ago that Yale joining or not joining is not a solution to the problem, and I don’t think students would say its a solution either, so students saying they can’t do anything else until this first step is taken doesn’t sound like a sound argument to me,” Filer said.
This feeling of failure led many to begin work on other activist causes. Within SAS, students have begun to work on issues such as protesting individual companies for their alleged sweatshop practices, as well as organizing on international issues, such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
The movement towards focusing on other issues is also partially a result of a lack of responsiveness on the administration’s part, students say.
“I think generally, looking at other ways that we can address these issues that don’t necessarily involve trying to move the Yale administration,” SAS member Kathryn Kline ’03 said.
Filer said students simply expect change to happen too quickly.
“Making change happen is difficult work that often takes a long time and those things Levin said we would do we’re actually doing,” Filer said.
Elm City activism
The New Haven political scene has often drawn student involvement, and this year many former SAS supporters have become involved in the aldermanic races and promoting employer neutrality in union organizing movements.
The aldermanic race spurred by Ward 1 alderman Julio Gonzalez’s announcement that he would step down at the end of his term also attracted activist support. The Ward 1 election committee endorsed Ben Healey ’04 as the Democratic candidate for the Ward 1 election in late February over two other candidates, Michael Montano ’03 and Lex Paulson ’02.
“I think a lot of it is really just timing,” Kline said. “The fact that Julio decided not to seek a third term meant that someone had to replace him and that’s something that pulled students into New Haven politics in a way that hadn’t happened in a few years.”
The aldermanic race has been coupled with an emphasis on the union and other labor issues, especially pertinent now since Yale’s contract with its unions expires on Jan. 20, 2001.
SAS member and former Social Justice Network co-coordinator Jessica Champagne ’01 has recently been working with local groups such as the union forming at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the fledgling Graduate Employees and Students Organization to promote employer neutrality in their organizing drives. Activists are working with Locals 34 and 35, which represent University clerical and technical workers and Yale’s service and maintenance workers. The issues of unions and sweatshops overlap, Champagne said.
“For a lot of people, working on the anti-sweatshop campaign opened their eyes to supporting Yale unions in their drive for fair treatment and dignity in the workplace,” Champagne said.
In working with the local unions, Champagne said students have been getting the word out to Yale students and alumni about union organization and getting student support for union issues.
Former Social Justice Network co-coordinator Jacob Remes ’01 said he saw an interconnection between New Haven politics and Yale activism.
“Activists are put on the Ward 1 committee because usually they’re traditionally the people who show an interest in working in the New Haven community,” Remes said. “What Ben Healey has done at Yale is work on labor issues, so people who work on labor issues are the core of his support.”
A new group seeking to organize student voice on campus has emerged — a union of undergraduate students.
Abbey Hudson ’03, president of the Yale College Democrats, Yale College Council representative and one of the group’s organizers said students got involved with the movement to empower student voice on campus.
“This is not a bunch of students whining and complaining or angry and trying to take over the school,” Hudson said. “Students are very concerned about this place. Why did I come to Yale? Because it is the best place around, and if student voice is heard, it will be even better.”
Students said other organizations have failed in mobilizing the greater student body. The Yale College Council, the student government, students said, does not have the power to implement their resolutions or establish a base of support.
“The administration sometimes says to the YCC, ‘There is no support for these issues. Do a referendum,’ but we can only do a referendum once a year,” Hudson said. “Through a student union, students can show support for these issues all of the time.”
Increased student voice is the primary reason for this yet-to-be-named organization.
“At the beginning of this year we talked about this problem we all have in common,” said Laura Kennington ’01, a member of the group. “We’ve seen it again and again. Students try to change things, but can’t change anything because we’re not a part of the decision making process.”
At last week’s open forum with Levin, the union made its first public appearance with a protest of sorts. Students were told to stand whenever somebody asked a question they were interested in. More than 100 students turned out for the event, and many of them stood up on issues of financial aid and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Students said this show of support for issues such as a change in financial aid policy, MLK Day and Yale joining the WRC was important.
“I think it was powerful,” Hudson said. “Levin was shocked the first time when people stood up for what they believed in.”
At the same time Hudson said the forum was unsatisfying.
“In questioning the administration it was successful as it can be,” Hudson said. “It’s easy to dodge questions and Levin probably doesn’t have the answers.”
Other than the forum, many student activists cited SAS’s failure to persuade Yale to join the WRC as a primary example of the student body’s lack of power. Organizers involved said they realized that no matter what they said or did, the Yale administration was capable of ignoring student sentiment altogether.
Ingrid Fuentes ’03, president of Despierta Boricua, the Puerto Rican students association, while not formally involved in the student union group, said the sweatshop issue illustrated the University’s attitude.
“For example, Students Against Sweatshops was a huge mobilization for the sweatshops issue and nothing happened,” Fuentes said. “That’s the best example that the University doesn’t listen to students.”
Levin maintains that the University is extremely responsive to student voice.
“If you look back in last 10 years, every issue that students have expressed concern about, there is significant progress on 90 percent of those issues,” Levin said. “When I became president, major concerns had to do with moving the residential renovation program along, getting more performance space, [and] getting more support for student organizations. These have all been accomplished.”
To gain the support of the greater student body, the strategy for this organization, as well as many other activist groups, has been to individually organize through conversations and through existing organizations, Kline said.
“There has been a shift towards more conversations between activists and really getting people committed to being organizers, as opposed to these huge flashy demonstrations, which we started to realize last year weren’t so effective as formally putting pressure on the Yale administration,” Kline said.
The would-be student union has contacted various organizations on campus including the Alliance for Dance at Yale, the Yale College Democrats and Despierta Boricua to explain the organization to students and ask for their support.
Using local unions and New Haven grassroots organizations as a model, they are encouraging people to join so they can affect issues “they care about, what they’re passionate about and what they want to change,” group member Karen Weise ’03 said.
The group’s organizing statement includes phrases such as, “I believe there are real problems facing undergraduates at this University,” as well as “I believe Yale should sit down with its undergraduates and negotiate in good faith on issues such as, but not limited to: Financial Aid, Performance Space, Environmental Policy, and Mental Health concerns.”
Organizers are planning to voice their opinions soon on campus. According to the organizing statement, a rally planned for April 20 in conjunction with local unions will be a call to action. The statement says, “Therefore, on April 20 I will come together with other undergraduates, graduate students, workers, and community members to a gathering on the Green and demand Yale listen to my voice.”