Morgan Currier is a undergraduate at the University of Washington, majoring in History. She is currently the International Solidarity Campaigns Representative to the National Coordinating Committee of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). She spends much of her time as an organizer in her local chapter where she runs campaigns around issues related to labor rights in solidarity with unions. In January 2011, Morgan traveled to the Dominican Republic to visit the Alta Gracia factory and her short film about the experience was shown at the Canadian Labour International Film Festival.
Ethix: How did USAS and social justice activism become such an important part of your life?
Morgan Currier: In high school, I had the opportunity to visit Agriprocessors meat plant in Postville, Iowa just months after the community fell victim to one the largest and most controversial immigration raids in U.S. history. Prior to the raid, reports had surfaced indicating that the factory was violating numerous U.S. labor laws including implementing forced overtime and employing children. Having conversations with the workers, the majority of whom were Guatemalan immigrants, was both shocking and eye-opening. Their undocumented status prevented them from organizing around the sweatshop conditions they were subject to while at the plant seven days a week. After the raid, U.S. law made it impossible for them to continue working or receive any source of income. Postville slowly began to deteriorate as families went hungry and local businesses couldn’t stay afloat. I couldn’t believe that this was the situation facing the workers who produced the “kosher” meat served at summer camps I attended as a teenager. I was frustrated that the struggle of these workers was so close to home, yet neither the workers nor myself had any ability to improve their situation.
This experience instilled in me a belief that solutions could be found through strengthening the labor movement. When I began college, I joined United Students Against Sweatshops because I believed in the goals and vision of the movement. USAS is dedicated to building sustainable power for working people everywhere and through coordinated, strategic campaigns, USAS has been extremely successful in holding corporations accountable to their workers. I realized that as a student at a University, I have a great deal of power and as I coordinate with unions and worker struggles, we can reclaim power that those at the top continue to withhold.
Ethix: You’ve spent a lot of time working on outreach and publicity for Alta Gracia Apparel. What makes the AG project so special, from your perspective?
Morgan Currier: Before Alta Gracia, when I walked into my University’s bookstore, my options for collegiate apparel were limited to big brands like Nike and Adidas who produce their apparel under sweatshop conditions (gasp!). Even if students were informed about the issue of sweatshop labor, they were not offered an alternative they could be excited about buying. Alta Gracia is currently the only living-wage union-made collegiate apparel being offered to students. Alta Gracia is so great because finally there is a brand that actually does right what everyone else in the garment industry is doing wrong – they are paying their workers a living-wage and giving them a voice in the workplace. I got to see the effects of Alta Gracia’s standards firsthand when I visited the factory last year. One worker, Rosa, explained that receiving a living-wage allowed her to afford her house, buy food for her family, and send her children to school. This standard of living was unimaginable when she was previously employed at BJ&B, a non-union factory that produced hats for companies like Nike.
Unfortunately, a living-wage is yet to be an industry-wide standard and students still have the choice to purchase sweatshop-made apparel. That’s why USAS is also currently demanding that Universities adopt the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP) so that Alta Gracia is not the only option for union-made apparel. For now, the success of Alta Gracia is undoubtedly paving the way for change. As the brand continues to grow with the support of students across the country, other large companies are faced with the reality that respecting workers’ rights and paying a living wage is in fact a sustainable business model that they should adopt.
Ethix: During the successful “Kick Out Sodexo!” campaign, you staged a sit-in in the office of your university president. What did the sit-in accomplish? I’m also just curious if any of your members, having fairly recently left the care of their parents/guardians, found it difficult or emotional to directly challenge authority in that way?
Morgan Currier: Last year as a member of USAS at the University of Washington, I helped organize a campaign around the food service giant, Sodexo, who operated concessions at UW athletic events. The company, which employs over 380,000 workers worldwide, was cited for human rights and labor violations in five countries including using violent tactics to bust unions. In light of this information, we felt there was no place for a company like Sodexo at our university. We demanded that their $3.4 million contract with the University of Washington be terminated unless the company remediated the cited violations.
Throughout our fourteen-month campaign, we held countless meetings with university administrators, did a number of “street theatre” actions, organized large rallies, spoke directly to Sodexo executives, and formed the UW Kick Out Sodexo Coalition, which included twenty-one campus organizations. Even with students and the wider Seattle community rallied behind us, the UW administration refused to take action and discontinued any communication with us. It was at this point that we were forced into holding three separate occupations of buildings on campus over the course of one month to get their attention. Unfortunately, instead of taking action against Sodexo’s labor violations, the UW chose to take action against us and had 55 students (including myself) arrested during the peaceful occupations.
Confronting power isn’t easy, but it is both effective and necessary as I learned from the Kick Out Sodexo campaign. Our actions resulted in the UW implementing new corporate responsibility standards in their concessions contract and ending their twenty-year relationship with Sodexo. Universities commonly throw around buzzwords like “human rights” and “social responsibility” when describing their institutions, but those words are often meaningless until students get involved. It’s become our job to hold university administrators accountable to their rich vocabulary and to do this, we have to challenge their authority by reminding them that Universities belong to us, the students. Although it can be difficult or emotional, a lot of students have proven that they understand the importance of utilizing their student power as we continue to see corporations relying on sweatshop labor and as we feel the continuing effects of disproportionate budget cuts on our education.
Ethix: What campaigns are you most invested in this semester?
Morgan Currier: USAS is currently trying to get universities across the country to implement the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP). This program requires that university licensees source the majority of their university logo apparel from factories that meet basic labor standards, including paying a living-wage and allowing workers to organize. It would also address the most common problem facing factories in the global garment industry, what many refer to as “cutting and running.” Brands will often pull orders from factories at their disposal to move production to cheaper locations. This leaves workers out of a job, without healthcare, and often without the legally mandated severance they need to feed their families.
A recent example of this took place in a factory called PT Kizone located in Indonesia. Adidas used this factory for production and although it was closed down last year, the brand is continuing to refuse the 2,800 workers of their legally mandated wages by claiming this payment is “not in their policy.” USAS affiliates across the country are running campaigns to ensure that Adidas is held accountable to paying the $1.8 million they owe to their workers while emphasizing the point that this common trend could be avoided altogether with the implementation of the DSP.
Ethix: Can you recommend to our readers any books, websites or other resources that have influenced your politics or moral compass?
Morgan Currier: Two books I would recommend are “Strike!” by Jeremy Brecher and “Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement” by Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss. For more information about USAS and our current campaigns around the country, you can find us online at www.usas.org.
We look forward to your thoughts. You can also download the entire interview here.