As a second-year columnist I have become accustomed to angry criticism levied from those at odds with my opinions. My personal e-mail account, the Spectrum e-mail account and my mailbox in 132 Student Union are often stuffed with comments from opposing readers, typically from conservative students attacking my left-of-center views.
In the last few weeks, however, I have been barraged with letters and even an irate phone call from activists appalled by my most recent column, "Activism for Activism's Sake," in which I criticize those who unthinkingly attach themselves to rallies - uninformed students who join up with the latest protest movements for the sake of making noise and demonstrating against a given issue.
The column in question came on the heels of The Spectrum's coverage of the Anti-Sweatshop Day of Action on Nov. 5, particularly my front-page article on the rally against sweatshop labor. UB's activities were part of a national, campus-based campaign sponsored by the National Labor Committee on Human Rights that called on universities to pressure companies producing their logo-bearing apparel to improve conditions in factories overseas, most notably in Bangladesh.
My column, which appeared the following Monday, expressed my dismay with certain aspects of the rally. This targeted attack on certain individuals was twisted by those who responded to my opinion into an all-out war against activism. My criticism of the tactics and lack of knowledge demonstrated by some of the rally participants was taken as evidence of my insensitivity to the injustices perpetuated by sweatshops around the world. In actuality, my column decried the fact that the complex issue of worldwide labor exploitation was reduced to sound bites, waving signs and mindless chants.
Prior to the rally, I had the opportunity to speak with female garment workers from Bangladesh who were touring the country with the NLC, and hear the horrors of sweatshops from firsthand sources. Through a translator, the women described the hopelessness of their situation in a country where elite factory owners bribe government inspectors and young people who attempt to organize are fired and blacklisted from future employment.
Janu Akther, barely older than myself, began working at the age of 12 manufacturing baseball hats. With sparkling eyes miraculously untainted by a life seemingly too difficult for words, she described earnestly the pressure of production quotas, the physical abuse at the hands of supervisors and the devastatingly low wages such women are subjected to by U.S. multinationals.
The Bangladeshi women were perhaps most animated and emphatic when I asked them an oft-repeated question: are jobs, even exploitative jobs, more desirable than unemployment?
The answer was unequivocal. "In Bangladesh we have massive unemployment. We need these jobs desperately. If we don't have these jobs than we'll be without food and we'll be thrown out on the streets," said Rafiq Alam, the translator.
"We don't want boycotts. We want jobs, but with improved conditions, with respect, with honor, with dignity, with human rights." Boycotts simply drive targeted corporations out of poor countries where jobs - any jobs - are desperately needed.
Yet at the rally, supposedly held in solidarity with these workers, participants during and after the protest called for boycotts against the New Era Cap Co. and other offending corporations - precisely the recourse the Bangladeshi garment workers implored me not to support.
Many of the participants calling for boycotts were members of CWA 14177, a local union currently on strike from the New Era plant located in Derby, N.Y. The group walked out of the plant this summer after New Era unilaterally imposed elevated production quotas and resulting wage cuts on its Derby workers.
Independent reports have charged the plant with union-busting techniques, high cut and puncture rates and an above-average incidence of repetitive motion injuries suffered on the job such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
How is the New York factory connected with the international movement against sweatshops? Aside from the fact that many of the strikers refer to the conditions of the Derby plant as "sweatshop-like," New Era also contracts a plant in Dhaka, Bangladesh. When union workers attempt to gain wage increases or greater protection against injuries, the company threatens to move work to Bangladesh, where workers earn pennies to the dollars of U.S. workers.
An anonymous e-mail to The Spectrum from a CWA 14177 worker, responding to my column, demonstrates this connection. "We are fighting to keep our jobs and not have the work sent overseas to sweatshops."
This simple statement illustrates the precarious balance labor rights activists must foster between protecting U.S. jobs from exportation to the developing world and improving the inhumane conditions of U.S. factories abroad, without pulling employment from impoverished nations.
Fundamentally, the interests of the Derby factory workers and the Bangladeshi garment workers are one and the same: both groups are being exploited by a company whose labor costs - the wages paid to its workers - are ridiculously low compared to the profits reaped by New Era.
But this united purpose can be easily dwarfed by an "us versus them" approach, which pits U.S. workers against foreign workers in a spiraling race to the bottom-line - a tendency which surfaced along with the calls for boycotts during the rally and in the letter quoted above.
I have barely scratched the surface of this complex issue in the limited space allotted my ramblings, demonstrating the importance of further education and discussion of what is clearly a pressing topic. The motivations behind the rally were unquestionably good ones, but it too only scratched the surface. Much-needed attention has been drawn to the issue of labor abuses; now we have to work to put our money - our consumer power - and concrete action where our pledges, our chants and our slogans are.