Thursday, February 23, 2012

MPIRG gets sweatshop-free Alta Gracia in the Highlander

Originally published in The Mac Weekly. Co-written with Anna Pickrell.

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The Highlander store began stocking a selection of sweatshop-free Alta Gracia apparel last week as MPIRG finalized long-term plans to switch to the supplier. Led by MPIRG’s Economic Justice task force, the results of the Alta Gracia initiative currently occupy a small corner of the store with plans to expand over time.

“This is sweatshop-free clothing, this is a factory that pays their workers a living wage and their workers aren’t stuck in poverty, they can send their kids to school, put food on the table, turn the lights on, which is not the option workers have when they work in sweatshops,” said co-task force leader Josie Ahrens ’14.

The previous buyer for the Highlander was concerned by the prospect of supplying clothing that would remain un-purchased by students in the store, according to Ahrens.

“We’ve been working to get Alta Gracia into the Highlander as a task force of MPIRG since last spring semester,” she explained. “It’s basically been a year that we’ve been trying to do this.”
MPIRG members concluded that students’ support for a workers’rights-friendly environment would justify the possibly more expensive switch to Alta Gracia apparel.

“The profit margins will initially be lower, but I think eventually as more colleges pick it up, students, even ones that aren’t that political or into this social justice movement, are still going to feel better about buying something that isn’t made in a sweatshop, because people can kind of imagine those conditions,” said MPIRG member Jeff Garcia ’14.

The change is also a nod to campus activists pushing for more acceptable clothing options.
“Alta Gracia is a step in the right direction toward what some people…call ‘moral capitalism,'” Garcia said. “And these are people who are CEOs, economists, kind of getting away from that crony capitalism, that exploitative side of it, and going into something that is still profitable but also fair.”

History of Macalester apparel

Alta Gracia is one of the most worker-friendly clothing manufacturers in business, according to United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a student-led organization promoting direct action on college campuses to combat anti-workers’ rights corporations. Ahrens said that Macalester has avoided purchasing products from the worst workers’ rights offenders, such as Nike, Adidas and Russell.

“We signed onto the Workers’ Rights Consortium, which says that we will buy the option that exploits workers the least,” Ahrens said. “Then Alta Gracia came around, which doesn’t exploit their workers at all, so we wanted to get that into the Highlander.”

Ahrens said that Macalester is “joining the ranks” of other local colleges and universities.

“It’s really exciting because Hamline just got [Alta Gracia] too and St. Thomas has Alta Gracia, and the U of M has them too.”

Training in Madison

Some Mac students involved in the initiative to bring Alta Gracia apparel to the Highlander recently had an opportunity to meet organizers from other campuses conducting their own workers’ rights campaigns. Thirteen students drove to UW-Madison for a national conference hosted by USAS.

(Editor’s note: Opinions Editor Jonathan McJunkin was one of the students who attended the USAS conference.)

Over 350 students from across the country attended, according to conference organizers. Attendees learned about the long-term strategies of USAS and techniques to organize for labor and campus campaigns. Theresa Chang, a National Organizer for USAS, felt satisfied after the conference.

“It was hugely successful in being able to both celebrate our history of huge victories and also to renew and revive and harness a lot of this student energy that we’re going to need to continue in building our movement,” Chang said. “Students [got] concrete organizing training to actually win campaigns in support of workers’ rights and build a global labor movement.”

The trainings at the conference emphasized direct action over electoral activism and legislative lobbying.

“USAS really seems to be focused on direct action,” said Garcia, who attended the conference.

“They’re not really so much for lobbying as for more supporting campus workers that aren’t hired directly by the campus.”

Some emphasized balance when seeking political change.

“One thing I did feel was missing from the conference was the sole focus on direct action,” said Zach Avre ’14, a conference attendee and Co-Chair of MacDems. “We [also] need to have people who are lobbyists and people who are candidates.”

MPIRG attempts to fill the space Avre is looking for.

“I feel like there are a number of people who are discouraged to join MPIRG because they think it’s all political,” said Lauren Silberman ’12, a Co-Chair of MPIRG. “MPIRG focuses on policy but uses direct action…whereas at the USAS conference it was all direct action, all the time.”

“USAS focuses on the direct action model because over history we know [that] the only things that working people, students, [and] Americans have ever fought for and won are through direct action,” Chang said.

The theme of the conference was solidarity, and to that end the similarities between attendees outweighed the differences.

“Everybody supported holding brands accountable [and that] factories should not be run like sweat shops,” Silberman said.

However, many Mac students were struck by how different their campus administration is from other colleges and universities. Ahrens noted that students from larger public universities and private said that their schools were “sort of run like corporations.”

“It was interesting to see how the Macalester administration is different from other schools where they hate their administration, they have sit-ins all the time, and they’re just always at odds and butting heads,” Avre said. “We are fortunate here at Macalester.”

“Going to USAS did make me appreciate how wonderful our administration is,” Silberman agreed. “They’re not perfect by any means, but in general [the administration] supports a lot of the issues that I [believe in].”

Future plans for Alta Gracia

Macalester has been anticipating Alta Gracia clothes for a long time, but advertising for the new inventory didn’t kick in until at least a week after their arrival.

“The thing that was hard was that we had been working to come up with a plan for how to do the advertising and we didn’t know when the product would arrive. Then all of a sudden it came…we hadn’t reserved table tents two weeks in advance, we hadn’t set up a time to have a promotional event,” Ahrens said. “So now we’ve done that but it’ll be two weeks out from when it came.”

Ahrens said that future publicity efforts would focus on educating Macalester students, faculty and staff about what Alta Gracia does as a company and why MPIRG felt the switch was necessary.

“Next Tuesday we’re having an event and we’re going to be talking about what Alta Gracia is, our process of getting it on campus, and we’re hopefully going to be able to Skype with a worker,” Ahrens said.

Additionally, now that the Highlander has a new buyer more keen to work with Alta Gracia, MPIRG will have the chance to expand on the currently small section of the store that stocks sweatshop-free items.

“It’s just a small selection, [but] we hope it will grow,” Ahrens said.

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