4 December, 2015United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) is unique in that it is the only completely student-led labour solidarity organization.
With thousands of members at over 150 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, USAS has drawn on the collective strength of students as a force for change both at home and abroad for 19 years.
“We use the power we have as students to force our universities to end their business relationships with brands that violate the rights of their workers anywhere in their global supply chain,” says Morgan Currier, USAS international campaign coordinator and national organizer.
“And we don’t just do this in a vacuum, but rather in solidarity with workers who are often putting their lives on the line to organize in their factories for better living wages, better working conditions, and a voice in the workplace.”
Campaigning by USAS has forced 21 universities to cut their merchandise contracts with VF Corporation, the largest branded apparel manufacturer in the world, for refusing to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.
VF Corporation, which produces North Face, Vans, Jansport, Timberland and 32 other brands, sources from 90 factories in Bangladesh employing over 190,000 garment workers.
USAS actions are frequently linked to and support IndustriALL Global Union causes. More than a year’s intensive campaigning by USAS led The Children’s Place to pay an additional US$2 million into the Rana Plaza compensation fund. The popular kids apparel brand initially paid US$450,000 - an amount far below what unions and NGOs were requesting.
Alongside garment worker solidarity, USAS campaigns to get better wages and rights for people working on university campuses, and to stop the privatization of the public education system.
USAS, which is headquartered at the offices of IndustriALL affiliate the United Steelworkers, in Washington D.C., also runs solidarity campaigns against Walmart and T-Mobile.
“Domestically we are organizing alongside adjunct faculty, food service workers, custodians, graduate students, and fast food workers on our campuses and in our communities, who are organizing unions, fighting for better contracts, or fighting for US$15 an hour,” says Currier.
Internationally, USAS continues to back workers in Bangladesh by targeting VF Corporation, supporting workers in the Gulf, and launching a new campaign called Sweatfree Bookstores. The campaign asks universities to ensure that at least 30 per cent of what is sold in their bookstores comes from factories that pay living wages, allow for freedom of association, and have a collective bargaining agreement.
“Our goal is to one day see garment workers everywhere organized into unions to take back power from the big apparel brands we buy from every day in the U.S. and in our university stores.
“Through talking with workers on our campuses and meeting with workers around the world who produce our collegiate apparel, students learn how the struggle of workers and students around the world are all connected,” says Currier.
Labour’s training ground
One of USAS’s biggest priorities is training students to become activists and labour organizers after they graduate. A very high percentage of USAS alumni are currently organizers or active union members.
“USAS members not only have a deep understanding of why the labour movement is important in addressing issues of racial and economic inequality, but they also have the tools to tackle those issues head-on through running their own campaigns with workers. We see ourselves not only as a corporate campaigning organization, but also as the only college-level, hands-on training ground for the next generation of labour leaders,” says Currier.