Five University of North Carolina students arrested for their role in a May anti-sweatshop protest at the offices of the university chancellor were found guilty Monday in Chapel Hill District Court.
Salma Mirza, Linda Gomaa, Sarah Hirsch, Thomas Mattera and Tim Stallmann participated in a two-week sit-in last spring at UNC's South Building. The demonstration culminated when they and dozens of other students rushed into the office of then-University Chancellor James Moeser to protest the university's rejection of a program they say will help improve conditions for workers who make the university's licensed apparel.
The move came just after a special meeting of the Licensing Labor Code Advisory Committee (LLCAC) called by Chancellor Moeser, in which he reaffirmed his earlier decision to forgo affiliating with the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP).
Last year Moeser characterized the program as "wonderfully idealistic, totally impractical."
However, the DSP is endorsed by 44 other universities—including Duke. The program addresses the systemic problems affecting the apparel industry by asking licensees not only to adhere to a set of codes, but also to agree to pay foreign factories enough money to actually comply with those codes, Mirza said during the trial.
In the realm of collegiate apparel, UNC has long been among the most popular schools in the country. It currently ranks seventh on the Collegiate Licensing Company's annual list of top-selling schools. Revenue from the trademark licensing of the Tar Heel logo generated $2.83 million in 2007, money the university says will be used to support need- and merit-based scholarships for UNC students.
It's unclear exactly how many of the factories that produce UNC apparel are adhering to the standards set by the university. Despite the code systems put in place by the two labor monitoring organizations affiliated with UNC—the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Worker Rights Consortium—some alleged that much of the apparel licensed by the companies like Nike and Champion and made for the $3 billion collegiate market is produced with sweat shop labor.
"The present situation is wholly unacceptable," says Altha Cravey, a UNC geography professor and long-time member of the LLCC. "For all of the money we've poured into these organizations to be members, the norm in the industry is still forced overtime. The norm is people not receiving a living wage. There are more adequate solutions out there, and we should take them seriously."
Earlier this year, Jorge Perez Lopez, executive director of the Fair Labor Association visited UNC and admitted to LLCC members that some of the accredited organizations violate the university's established codes of labor conduct. UNC has joined with 10 other top-selling universities to develop an enhanced monitoring protocol, but critics of the FLA have been quick to point out that the FLA includes among its leadership representatives from the very companies that operate the factories that are failing to adhere to the codes.
"The FLA solution is just to create more codes, which we already know doesn't work," says Mirza. "It's a fire alarm method. It only works if someone lodges a complaint. It assumes that workers aren't suffering every day."
During the trial, the student's attorney, Al McSurely, president of the Chapel Hill/ Carrboro chapter of the NAACP, argued that their actions were necessary to prevent the greater crime being perpetrated against the workers, whose suffering they said would, at least to some degree, be abated if Moeser would change his stance.
The presiding judge however, disagreed. After applauding the students' idealism, Judge Patricia Devine found each of them guilty on charges of failure to disperse, while a gallery of their visibly disappointed supporters looked on.
"This case hinges on whether or not there was a legitimate nexus between the students' hope that they could change the chancellor's mind thereby benefiting workers and their actions," said Devine. "I see no evidence of that."
Mirza, the organizer of the protest, was also found guilty of resisting arrest for refusing to walk to the awaiting police vehicle after her arrest, though her sentence, as well as that of the rest of the protesters, was vacated by the judge.
Despite the verdict, the students were encouraged. "This is still a victory for us because no one in that courtroom said that we were wrong in trying to get the university to adopt the DSP," explained Sarah Hirsch.
With the start of the new school year, supporters of the DSP will get another chance to convince university higher-ups to join. One of former Chancellor Moeser's last acts as head of the university was to set the agenda for the Licensing Labor Code Committee. Committee members hope to have a substantive discussion at their first meeting on how the university handles its licensing issues, including revisiting the DSP.