Students Against Sweatshops

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The book tells the story of students who took the lesson of deep ecology to heart: the best way to care for one's own garden is to pay attention to the world beyond its walls.

Liza Featherstone and United Students Against Sweatshops

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Sunday, June 30 2002, 10:21 AM


What do you when you realize that the world is a far bleaker place than you were led to believe? Finally comprehending that they do not inhabit the "best of all possible worlds", the star-crossed lovers of Voltaire's eighteenth century tale Candidedecide to tend their own garden. Ever since, readers have wondered whether Voltaire's happy ending should be taken ironically. Yet that hasn't stopped generations of political burnouts from retreating to bucolic landscapes, where the harsh realities of life are muted by the scent of clover. Long before the era of communes, universities served this function. The phrase "cultural oasis" captures their role perfectly. For every disenchanted activist who gave up on political engagement to grow parsley, sage, rosemary, and weed, another two or three went back to school for a graduate degree. And it's hard to argue with their logic. But we must.

That's what makes Students Against Sweatshops such a refreshing read. The book tells the story of students who took the lesson of deep ecology to heart: the best way to care for one's own garden is to pay attention to the world beyond its walls. The pastoral pleasures of college life come at a high price for students, but far too cheaply for the workers who make them possible. This is true for the maintenance and clerical staff, not to mention many of the teachers themselves. But it's the workers who slave to make college students' clothes and computers in places like Mexico, China, and Indonesia that suffer the most severe exploitation. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the anti-sweatshop movement is that more Americans and Europeans realize this than ever before. As Liza Featherstone writes in the book's introduction, "In malls nationwide, it's no longer unusual to overhear shoppers in front of a Gap store debating whether to go inside. 'We've heard they use sweatshop labor,' one will say."

Mind you, there are plenty of leftists out there who take a dim view of the anti-sweatshop movement, regarding it as too naԶe, too narrow in scope, too preoccupied with "easy" targets like Nike, Kathy Lee, and The Gap. To be sure, if you're analyzing the movement from a perspective rooted in the 1960s, it's hard not to feel a little let down. The bulk of anti-sweatshop activists' triumphs -- getting universities to stop doing business with the most exploitative garment makers, harming the reputation of a few popular brands -- fall short of "revolutionary." Students Against Sweatshops does an admirable job of addressing these concerns. And it reflects a degree of self-reflexivity too often missing from the student movement in the 1960s. As Featherstone notes, "because it is not focused on the activists' own labor the student anti-sweatshop movement is not, in itself, a labor movement," but rather "a movement premissed on the activists' class privilege." But neither this fact, nor the movement's single-issue origins represent a failure of political will. On the contrary, as the book makes clear, the movement's achievements were only possible because its members did not, as many of their forebears in the 1960s surely did, become blinded by their own idealism. Their recontextualization of the Spanish workers' slogan "Si se puede!" transforms it into a "Si podremos!" They have learned well how to answer Nike's call.

Students Against Sweatshops is available from Verso  

Copyright © 2002 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.
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