Liza Featherstone and United Students Against Sweatshops, Students Against Sweatshops (London and New York: Verso, 2002), 119 pages, paper $15.00.
Not long ago, the conventional wisdom was that capitalism was so completely triumphant that we were at the "end of history." So strong and seemingly obvious was this view that many progressives embraced it. People's imaginations shrunk and only the smallest and most local kinds of change appeared possible
What the conventional wisdom never understood, and what some progressives forgot was that capitalism is a system riddled with irresolvable contradictions, and these contradictions sooner or later generate opposition. Capitalism triumphant promises us unlimited possibilities, but it delivers more poverty, inequality, and underemployment. Capitalism promises freedom but gives us only the freedom to buy things. Work, the most basic of human enterprises, is done by "free" laborers but is performed under conditions of dictatorship. For the average worker in today's world, the future looks pretty bleak: low wages, long hours, unemployment, and meaningless and mentally and physically debilitating labor. Not to mention racism, sexism, and a debased and life-threatening environment.
The gap between capitalism's hype and its reality is so great that some people are bound to notice and be moved to do something about it. Sometimes, even those who live fairly comfortable lives notice and take action. Some college students in the United States, for example, became revolutionaries in the 1960s, and thousands more participated in the civil rights and antiwar movements. In France, in 1968, students closed many of the universities and almost succeeded in forming a student-worker affiance that might have toppled the government. In the world's poor countries, universities have often been centers of radical ferment.
There are many events that may wake people up and make them think and act. For college students, it might be a war that threatens their lives and those of theft contemporaries in other countries. It might be a part-time job, a trip abroad, an internship with a labor union or a social service organization, church activity, a teacher's lectures, discussion with classmates, a speaker on campus, a film, or labor struggles on their own campuses.
A number of circumstances conspired in the 1990s to create a new student movement, one with great promise for promoting radical change. Liza Featherstone's new book, Students against Sweatshops, examines what is probably the most important manifestation of this movement--the student-led struggle against sweatshops. Written in active collaboration with the United Students against Sweatshops, this slim volume is an interesting and thoughtful history and analysis of the antisweatshop movement. Along with Featherstone's narrative, there are personal accounts written by thirteen student activists, and these add greatly to the book because they give us an idea of who the students are, and how they came to be so deeply involved in the lives of people whose living and working conditions are so far removed from their own.
Several factors help to explain the origins and development of the antisweatshop movement. First, there were a series of campaigns, exposing working conditions in the subcontracted plants of high profile companies like Nike and confronting media personalities like Kathie Lee Gifford. Independent labor groups, like the National Labor Committee, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, and the anti-Nike "Press for Change" group, begun by former AFL-CIO official Jeff Ballinger, organized campaigns to publicize the conditions of garment and other low-wage workers in both the rich and poor countries. The disparity between the lifestyle of people like Gifford and Nike CEO Phil Knight and the poverty of the workers, as well as the chasm between the price of the shoes and garments and the wages paid to the workers, resonated among many youth who began to see how crassly they were being manipulated by the slick advertisements for the products they had been duped into buying. …