Even with the rising temperatures of August, the students still marched, shouted and raised their fists in defiance against the corporate apparel giant of Russell Athletic. They believed. A young student had adroitly made a sign that read, “Russell Athletics: Made in Sweatshops since 1902,” and held it up in the air with a line of marchers right behind her. They were empowered by numbers, energy and idealism.
Soon after Russell Athletics shut the factory down in January, the “United Students Against Sweatshops” organized nationwide protests against Russell Athletics for its treatment of workers in Honduras. This coalition of students persuaded the administrators of Boston College, Columbia, Harvard, New York University, Stanford, Michigan, North Carolina and 89 other college and universities to sever or suspend their license agreement with Russell Athletics.
Student activists stretched beyond their campuses and had picket lines at the NBA finals and even had students knock on Warren Buffet’s door, whose company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns Fruit of the Loom, a parent company of Russell Athletics.
On Nov. 17, the students of United Students Against Sweatshops announced their biggest victory as a student movement. The apparel company Russell Athletic agreed to rehire 1,200 workers in Honduras and allow them to unionize.
It was not an overnight victory but one that was 10 years in the making. The students held lengthy sit-ins to pressure their school officials to adopt an independent monitoring group, the Workers Rights Consortium, which inspects factories to make sure they comply with university codes. The students persevered because they believed that what they were fighting was something that truly mattered – something that made the lives of 1,200 workers in Honduras a little bit easier. Their education was alive and active.
Students at Kent State take liberal arts education classes, business classes and science classes that challenge them to think in the context of the subject. It is up to the student to stretch these subjects outside the doors of the classroom into the complex and confusing world we inhabit. Students can choose to simply take a class, “learn” the subject, earn a grade and move on with their lives. The student paid, the student learned and now the student has a document that says he or she is educated. Or students can take these subjects and see how the subject relates to their daily lives, what the subject means beyond the classroom chair and how, especially in this case, the practice of multi-national corporations do affect us.
It is also up to the professors as well to challenge the students. Professors have the choice between simply “passing” the knowledge down to the student as a simply right or wrong answer, or they can challenge the student and teach “knowledge” as something ever-evolving, forever being challenged and questioned. Professors shouldn’t ask for “right” answers on exams but should demand challenging questions that leave them perplexed and awestruck. This is what fuels deeper thinking on the part of the professor and the student. Through deeper thinking and contemplation, then, students can make broader connections and form alternative ways of viewing the world.
United Students Against Sweatshops has exemplified that how the world is structured – the practices of big corporations, the wars we fight, the polarized politics of today and the inequality that pervades in the world – is not normal, is not just how the world is and will forever be.
As students at Kent State, we do have the power to challenge our professors, our administrators and big corporations and say that this is not how the world should work. This is not the simple “right” and only answer. If you don’t agree with what professors say, challenge them. Find students who agree with you or, maybe even better, disagree with you. Find a common ground of how both of you want the world to be. If you disagree with university practices or the pay raises of some administrators, hold your fist up in defiance, start an organization, unite with your fellow students to make the situation better for you and better for everyone. Unite to make your education better, maybe the world better. That is the idealistic spirit of university education.
David Busch is a junior history and psychology major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]