February 24, 2010

Students Lobby Against Sweatshops

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Last night, members of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and their allies lobbied the City of Ithaca to join the State and Local Government Sweatfree Consortium and buy uniforms for its officials through non-sweatshop factories.

Elected officials appeared to greet COLA’s anti-sweatshop proposal enthusiastically, though they did not commit to any action. The five-person City Administration Committee will determine if the resolution supported by COLA makes it to a council-wide vote.

Committee Chair Maria Coles (D-1st Ward) encouraged the students’ efforts, telling an emotional personal story about her own father’s factory job. She stressed the need to eliminate the “vestiges” of labor malpractice worldwide.

But Coles — who COLA President Andrew Wolf ’10 called the proposal’s “second biggest ally” on the council, behind Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th Ward) — recognized the city’s tough fiscal reality.

She asked if Cornell could “offset” some of the costs of the proposal, saying that the University’s large amount of tax-exempt property put monetary strains on the city.

Wolf, who was also the president of United Students Against Sweatshops, emphasized the low cost to the city that the change would bring: conservatively $500 a year, COLA estimated.

COLA Treasurer John Ertl claimed that adopting the policy might even potentially “save [the city] some money,” because it currently reimburses officials, instead of buying in bulk. “The money issue should not be a big deal, anyway,” he said.

But Deputy Comptroller Stephen Hancox, who “fully supports” the proposal, also worried about its “symbolic value.”

“It’s a very miniscule amount, [but] every dollar is important,” Hancox said. “[That money] could pay for a new [machine] for a local agency or for a local project,” he added.

Like Coles, Hancox also said that “taxpayers have to put money in for Cornell,” making it difficult for “Cornell students to come in and ask for more.”

In a passionate speech in the beginning of the discussion and meeting, Wolf said that ending funding for companies that use sweatshops was about “making globalization fair.”

He was followed by Ertl, who labeled the three key foundations for the proposal: “transparency, standards and enforcement.”

Many other COLA members and Cornellians spoke before the committee, including James Douglass, Alex Boris and John Sherman. They and others emphasized the power of the consumer to influence companies’ labor practices and actions, cited Ithaca’s progressive history and strong unions and evoked the conscience of the city.

COLA members were also emboldened by their recent victory over Russel, which recently decided to rehire hundreds of Honduran workers after campus wide protests lead several universities to cancel their contracts with Russel.

Laurie Konwinski, a member of Tompkins’ County Chapter of Catholic Charities, was the only local resident who turned out specifically to voice support for the proposal. She said that “local residents” supported what COLA was doing, too.

The switch would be an “investment for the country” and would “bring factories and companies up to moral standards,” Konwinski said.

The local workers in attendance said that they fully supported the efforts by Cornell students, but thought that their own gripe was equally important.

“It’s kind of ironic that [they’re] advocating for nearly the same rights that we’re looking for here,” city employee Brian Carmen said. Carmen hoped that the city would adopt COLA’s proposal, but also felt that the city should “care for their own employees first.”

Carmen and other local residents went to the meeting with the hope the city would act on a state report, by the Civil Service Employee Association, which had found that many Ithaca employees were underfunded. Although much discussed, it was the first time the report made it this far to committee.

After the COLA presentation and after the students had left the room, local workers waited as the committee discussed, for nearly a half hour, the merits of moving the committee meeting time from 7:30 to 6:00.

Joel Zumoff (D-3rd Ward) said that he couldn’t legislate on an empty stomach; Deborah Molenhoff (D-5th Ward) countered she sometimes became too tired to legislate when the sessions ran overtime. The workers continued to wait.

Eventually, the council moved on to discuss the workers’ complaints. Within five minutes, council-members accepted a motion to move the debate to a private discussion in a backroom.

After the discussion, they agreed to suspend consideration of the report until further information was available.

Original Author: Jeff Stein