In 1996, the National Labor Committee published a report exposing the use of Honduran sweatshops by Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line, Kathie Lee, sold exclusively at Wal-Mart. The NLC’s exposé, along with similar concerns raised about Nike and Gap, brought sweatshops into the limelight. In response, concerned university students across the United States began organizing. Thus, United Students Against Sweatshops, or USAS, was born.

Members of USAS began by targeting their own universities to ensure that the clothing their university sold was produced under fair labor standards. But students didn’t stop there—USAS was directly or largely responsible for multiple gains made in the anti-sweatshop movement in the years that followed. Among these was the October 1999 announcement of Nike and other companies that they would comply with the requirement to disclose their factory locations. This was the first time that any garment industry company conceded to this demand.

In 2000, USAS members helped found the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization. In one year, over 80 universities joined the WRC, in spite of Nike’s “bullying” of WRC-supportive universities, such as NIKE CEO Phil Knight’s withdrawal of a $30 million donation to the University of Oregon. In 2001, the WRC and USAS achieved major strides for fair labor standards at the KukDong International factory (a Nike/Reebok production facility) in Atlixco de Puebla, Mexico, and the New Era factory in Derby, NY. Currently, over 170 universities and colleges are affiliated with the WRC.

Today, USAS organizes its works into three major campaign areas: the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign, Ethical Contracting campaigns which includes a campaign against Coca-Cola, and Campus-Community Solidarity campaigns, which includes fighting for living wages for campus workers, and campus workers’ rights to organize.

USAS has taken as its motto a quote from aboriginal Australian activist Lilla Watson,

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

USAS demonstrates its solidarity with workers in sweatshops and on college campuses by supporting workers organizing themselves for better conditions. They pay special attention to the rights of women, as 90% of garment industry workers are women. USAS also runs not only regional member blogs, but also blogs for and by people of color, BGLT folk, people who identify as Womyn-Genderqueer, and working class people. In short, USAS is committed to working for justice in a just and inclusive way.

So to celebrate USAS’s 10th birthday, try one of the following:

  • If you want to read a more complete and truly inspiring account of the history of USAS, take a look at their page on the History and Formation of USAS. If you are affiliated with UNC–Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, UC-Irvine, UW-Madison, Middlebury, Duke, Georgetown, University of Oregon, or Occidental College, you might find this article particularly interesting.
  • Visit USAS’s Take Action page and find out how you can become involved in the fight for workers’ rights.
  • If you are a university freshman, sophomore, or junior, you can apply to be an international summer intern with USAS, which will send 8-10 students to different countries to research, organize, and build relationships with workers, unions, and other allied organizations.

Happy Tenth Anniversary to USAS, and many happy returns!

About the Author
Lisa Swanson

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